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Fly fishing in Driftless America: How I fell in love with a terrible, wonderful pastime

Kurt Stafki

Kurt Stafki

If you know someone who spends a lot of time fly fishing and they tell you they love every minute of it, they’re lying.

It’s difficult not to hate our chosen pastime, at least sometimes. Numb fingers that make it impossible to tie knots. Picky fish. Mosquito swarms. Cold feet. It’s like golf, if the hole could move or disappear completely. Fly fishing has shown me a side of frustration I didn’t know someone could feel. And that’s exactly what keeps me on the water all year long.

A fly-fishing shop called Mend Provisions opened in south Minneapolis in 2012, and the place supplied coolers full of cheap yellow beer and a twangy rock band for its first birthday party the following year. A friend invited me along, and though fly fishing was something I knew nothing about at the time, cheap yellow beer and twangy rock were extremely my thing. (Two out of three ain’t bad.) By the end of 2013, I had a freshly purchased fly rod and reel setup, maybe a dozen bugs, and no idea what I was getting myself into.

The goal of fly fishing is to catch fish. It’s relatively simple. When most folks think of fly fishing, they think trout. But while many people only target browns and brooks and rainbows, fly fishing refers to the method of fishing rather than the type of fish that are caught. Lots of folks target panfish, bass, and even muskies with fly rods. Any fish that can be caught with a bobber or a crankbait can also be caught on the fly. Trout fishing is just more popularly connected with catching fish with a fly rod, so that’s what I’ll stick to.

When most people get into fly fishing, they first tag along with an experienced friend who knows the ropes. Not me.

I wisely dove head-first into an expensive hobby. It was May 2014 in Preston, Minnesota on the Root River when I spent my first day on the water. My rod was correctly assembled—line threaded through each guide and everything. Without knowing anything about which fly to choose, I used a knot I learned from watching YouTube videos to attach the bug to the end of my line. My waders were pulled up and my vest had mostly empty pockets. That’s where my knowledge stopped. I had no idea how to find fish, or even how to cast a fly in front of them if I were to find any.

Audra Kerlin

Audra Kerlin

And yet, somehow, I caught a fish. The rush of adrenaline when I saw the splash of the take and felt a tug on the line was something I’ll never forget. Fake it until you make it, people.

But it was just dumb luck that I caught anything that first day. The ensuing handful of times I went fishing resulted in a series of skunks. In my first year, which included several trips to the Whitewater River during a particularly cold and snowy winter, I was skunked more often than not. If you’re new to fly fishing, or if you’re thinking of getting into it, wait until the warmer months. You probably won’t catch any fish, but at least you’ll be warm. That winter was just downright miserable on the river. -2/10 would not recommend.

With practice (slowly) came more success. I was finally spending more time with a line on the water than I was untangling knots and unsnagging my flies from trees. To be clear, I still spend too much time not-fishing while trying to fish, but the ratio has slightly improved in my favor. I began occasionally catching multiple fish during a day, a trend that I’m pleased to report has continued. I also began slowing down and enjoying the beauty of rivers. Instead of throwing on my gear and rushing into the water to start fishing, I’d take my time and study the water, the wind, the flies, and the fish before even getting wet. It forced me to calm the fuck down and experience something.

...This is starting to sound like some transformative Zen experience, isn’t it?

Fly fishing started to consume my time. Work weeks were spent waiting until the weekend to make escapes to a river. On long summer days, I’d frequently skip town after work to go to the Kinni in River Falls, Wisconsin. Sometimes I’d drive an hour, fish for an hour until dark, then drive the hour back home. I can’t say it made much sense to spend two hours driving for just one hour fishing, but I didn’t—and still don’t—care. Summer nights in a tight river valley with crickets and frogs and miniature fog clouds lingering over rapids are my third love language. Catching fish is becoming more of an added bonus these days.

If you know someone who spends a lot of time fly fishing, you know someone who has a very particular set of skills: mastery of knot untangling, advanced swearing, impressive beer tolerance, untold patience, and the observant eye of a sentry. They’re also completely irrational. We’ve found something we love and we choose to do it the hard way. We choose to wake up well before dawn to stand in a frigid river until dark. We choose to shiver for hours at a time. We choose to drive hours out of the way to try a new spot. We choose to master something that never gets easier.

If I told you I hated it, I’d be lying to you.

A guide to getting into fly fishing

1. Research everything fly fishing online. 
Required gear, trout species, trout habitats, trout food – it’s all out there. Learn the difference between a brown trout and a rainbow trout. Learn the anatomy of a fly rod. Learn the difference between a leader and tippet. The internet is, in this case, helpful.

2. Visit a local fly shop 
This is an important resource. I credit Mend Provisions with getting me to where I need to be. Your local shop will get you outfitted with gear, recommend flies, teach you how to cast, teach you how to tie flies (if you’re into that), and connect you with other like-minded folks for future fishing.

3. Find a friend 
Do you have a friend who spends time on the river? Do you follow someone on Instagram who likes to fish? Talk to them. Meet up for coffee or beer(s) and learn what you can about getting started. Ask them to take you fishing. We’re nice people.

4. Learn fly fishing rules and regulations 
When in the year can you catch fish? Where can you catch fish? What can you use to catch fish? Regulations vary from lake to lake and river to river. These laws are in place to maintain healthy fish populations (and come with a healthy fine if you fuck up).

5. Try. Fail. Repeat. 
Fly fishing isn’t easy. Simplicity isn’t why we spend obsessive hours chasing fish that may or may not exist. Know that you probably won’t find success right away. It’ll be frustrating. But when you catch that first fish, none of that matters, and you’ll suddenly find yourself on a weeklong road trip to New Mexico with someone you just met—true story. Good luck out there.