Comedian Henny Youngman once said, “A self-taught man usually has a poor teacher and worse student.” After fly-fishing with a local guide, I would have to agree.
I have always described myself as self-taught fly fisherman. It was through trial and error that I learned how to tie a blood knot, cast a line and convince a trout to take my fly. Somehow, I managed to catch my fair share of fish over the years.
As it turns out, I have been doing a lot of things wrong.
Recently, I had a chance to fish with Dave Gamet from Dakota Angler in Rapid City. I was working on a video project for a new outdoor business venture and needed to showcase the skills of an accomplished fly fisherman. I certainly didn’t trust my own abilities, especially in front a video camera.
Dave is a professional guide who has been fishing in the Black Hills for most of his adult life. When I first booked the trip with Dakota Angler, I was assured we would catch fish. This justified my reason for hiring a guide in the first place. I couldn’t make such a statement without including some well-place qualifiers, like “I hope” and “maybe if we’re lucky.”
I met Dave at The Dakota Angler early on a Friday morning, loaded my gear into the back of his Jeep and headed off to Spearfish Canyon. This gave me a good hour of windshield time to get some valuable fishing advice before we stepped into the water. Dave has an encyclopedic knowledge of fly-fishing in the Black Hills, which he attributes to his personal involvement with improving trout habitat in the area.
I asked Dave what it was like to be a fly fishing guide. To someone like me who spends most of his life in meetings or staring at a computer screen, the idea of fishing 200 days a year seems very rewarding. Dave didn’t have to say a word. His widening grin answered my question.
Of course, some days are better than others. Most of Dave’s clients are tourists who want to fly fish while they are visiting the Black Hills. Day one: Mount Rushmore. Day two: Reptile Gardens. Day three: Fly fish. As a result, he spends a lot of time instructing people who have never held a fly rod in their hand. Fortunately, Dave has the experience and patience to teach almost anyone how to catch trout.
According to Dave, the best days are with people who are willing to learn. The most challenging days are with people who think they know more than they do.
We stopped along Spearfish Creek where the fast-running water slowed down enough to give us an easy point of entry. The morning air was September cool, but not cold. The aspen trees dotting the canyon walls had already turned gold, giving us a sneak preview of the fall colors to come. Except for a few passing cars traveling between Spearfish and Deadwood, the canyon was uncharacteristically quiet.
Dave’s job was to simply do what he does best—catch fish. My job was to help our videographer get the shots he needed to create a new self-promotion video. To no one’s surprise, I brought my rod along just in case we wrapped early.
The water was so clear we could see dozens of trout swimming in and out of cover. The larger ones were smart enough to stay out of sight. Dave tied on two flies—a dry fly with a dropper—to attract fish feeding above and below the surface. After three or four casts, he landed his first fish of the day—a nice 12-inch brownie.
Three or four casts later, he landed another one just like it. Dave was so efficient, we were able finish shooting sooner than expected.
We moved to another spot further down the canyon where the rushing water fed into a deep pool. Again, we could see dozens of trout settled at the bottom. Under normal circumstances, I would dismiss the area as too difficult to fish. Too deep. Too fast. Too many trees.
That’s when Dave showed me how to execute a proper roll cast…and the correct way to drift a fly through the water…and how to properly set a hook…and land a fish. In ten minutes, all my self-taught techniques were exposed as slightly flawed. How many trout have I missed over the years because I didn’t know any better?
Clearly, if I had met Dave 30 years earlier, I would be a much better fly fisherman today. After one morning with a professional guide, I can already notice a measurable improvement.
If I have taught myself anything, it is to admit what I don’t know and to always remain open to learning something new.