Elegy, With a Whorl of Rainbow-Colored Water Inside

Fly-fishing the Provo River with Rocky Mountain Outfitters

Ironically, perhaps, I spent my first-ever day of fly-fishing thinking not about the fish, but about the arc my fly line took as it wished through the air, from downstream water to air to upstream water, back and forth like that, hanging in the air, as if suspended by the sunlight glinting off the Provo River.

And when I caught fish that morning, that great, seamless display of a morning, I wondered not at the beauty of the rainbow trout but instead at just how my fly must have looked to the fish before she caught it in her mouth, then fought to run away with it.

But perhaps the strangest thing about my four hours in the Provo River a few Saturdays ago is that I found I was really uninterested in catching fish. Rather, I was too focused on the cast - the cast is an art form, and a good one is a thing of beauty.

Anyway, I had a guide to worry about where the fish were, and he really did not seem to worry about them, either. He knew exactly where they were; my friend Laura, whose casts were guided by Britt, a guide at Rocky Mountain Outfitters, caught a beautiful rainbow trout on about her third cast. And in my morning on the river, with the snowcapped Wasatch shining high above, I caught four fish. Not bad, I suppose, considering it was essentially the first time I had ever gone fishing.

Steve, a strapping handsome guy, was my guide and a two-year veteran of Rocky Mountain Outfitter's fly-fish guiding service, and he constantly had me moving downriver, out into the middle of the stream, up the river, and then back towards shore a step or two. We were fishing a grid, focusing on a few fish and some shady, bank-protected holes that they favored. He had outfitted me with guide-quality waterproof waders and an excellent $1,000 rod and reel.

While Steve and Britt were indeed great fishers (they could probably sniff fish out of my toilet bowl) it did not hurt that we were all standing knee deep in the Provo River. The Provo flows from high out of the Uinta and Wasatch mountains, pools in Jordanelle and Deer Creek reservoirs, then lays out into this mellow stretch of river that fills Provo Canyon, flows through the booming town of Provo, then into Utah Lake, which itself empties into the Jordan River and the Great Salt Lake, where it simply evaporates into the desert air.

The Provo is perhaps Utah's greatest fishing river, a state-designated Blue Ribbon trout stream with 2,000 to 3,000 fish per mile, and while it is stocked for fishers it is also a healthy ecosystem that is in good-enough shape to spawn its own trout. The river sees heavy traffic from downstream Provo, and as we fished there were always a handful of other fishers in sight.

The prize catch on the Provo are its brown and rainbow trout, speckled beauties endemic to this part of Utah. The average trout here is 14 inches long, said Steve, though it is common to see 17 to 19-inchers, he added.

Fish eat bugs, and more than three-quarters of those bugs are beneath the surface of the water, said Steve. That is why we are nymph-fly fishing, rather than dry-fly fishing. Dry-fly is, I guess, a more technical, more traditional fly fishing where the fly is more constantly in motion over the water; expert fishers shadow-cast their dry-fly: creating a shadow of a fly over the water to entice a hungry fish.

But nymph-fly fishing is more 'user-friendly,' he said, and more effective on a river like the Provo, which is an ecosystem rich with bugs living in the water. So, with the nymph-fly, we cast our line up river and let the weighted fly drop into the water. The cast is important so that you get the fly where you think the fish are; when the fly floats until it is in front of you, you give the line a short yank - technically called a 'mend' - to pull it upstream of the fly, meaning you get a cleaner float. When the fly is at the line's limit, let it sit for a second and watch it closely: fish seem to take their bite almost at the end of the line's journey. If nothing, cast.

Of course, I forgot one or more steps constantly throughout my morning on the Provo. Steve said it is actually women and children who make better fly-fishers, or at least better learners, since they listen better and have less to prove and no expectations. I don't know if I was being a poor listener that morning or just too overwhelmed by the whole thing. But regardless, I still caught my share.

Steve Chapple, in his odd book 'Kayaking the Full Moon' said cutthroat 'are dumb as fence posts' and too stupid to unhook themselves from a line. But I lost plenty that morning. Steve explained that since fish spend all their time eating and swimming they learn very well the flies they are hunting for; those bugs are catalogued by the fish into size, speed and color, 'and if they don't like it, they won't take it.' Therefore, having a good fly selection is critical to catching fish, and most serious fly-fishers tie their own flies. This is crucial for coming up with an original, life-like fly that not everyone has. Imagine, then, the poor fisher who buys his fly at Wal-mart, which sells hundreds of thousands of identical flies. The fish have long since figured out which flies are real.

Taking a break from the river, Steve opened up his tackle case. It was a small, book-like plastic case with hundreds of flies inside. Each different fly actually came in a host of sizes. The kit, he said, was worth hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars. But what to choose?

From the first fish we caught Steve and Britt pulled out sucking contraptions that looked like turkey basters - they put the nozzle into the fish's mouth, pumped, and pulled out the contents of its stomach. A good fly fisher can also read the flies in a fish's stomach to find what they are eating that day. Steve and Britt matched those flies to the fly on the end of our line, and put the fish back in the water.

So what was on the menu? Sows, said Steve, size 14 and 16 (like wire gauges, the smaller number is a larger fly). Steve apparently figured that I had everything worked out, or at least that I was not going to impale myself with the hook, and he stepped back and let me work it alone for a bit.

Steve said he is on a 'bass kick' these days, traveling to fishing tournaments around the West. Guiding on the Provo, he says, is now a sort of vicarious life lived through his clients. 'Our reward is having people catch those fish and having them say, You know what? I accomplished something today. People come out there with no expectations of catching fish and they are just thrilled with they get one. We spend a few hours working on their cast and mend and then step back.'

I called this story an 'elegy' even though, to my knowledge, no fish died. Why did I call it an elegy, then? Part in tribute to Utah's greatest-ever poet, Larry Levis, who died a few years ago. I always imagined him a fly-fisher, though in truth I have no idea if he ever fished or not. He was quite a heavy smoker, which would seem to preclude fishing. But he wrote a poetry that seemed to flow with the river, and his last collection, coincidentally, was called 'Elegy.' It is something that has stuck with me.

Even without Steve right there, I continued to catch fish. My last two were smaller fish, juveniles, nothing to get excited about but good evidence that the Provo's ecosystem is still healthy and functioning properly. We let the fish go - Rocky Mountain Outfitters encourages fishers to put the fish back in the water - and I fell into a relaxed, hypnotic concentration of cast, mend, drift and cast. The river's ripples formed a mesmerizing white-noise background; thighs braced against the river, I concentrated without thinking about it.

'Fishing is an equalizer,' he said as we waded out of the river on to shore. 'It's you against the fish. If you don't catch that fish, the fish wins.' Sorry, fish: I won.

A special thanks to Rocky Mountain Outfitters. With Rocky Mountain, fly-fishing trips are fully equipped and the client-to-guide ration is never more than two-to-one. Based at Sundance, a few miles up the canyon from Provo, Rocky Mountain also offers guided snowmobiling, horseriding and chuck wagon trips.

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