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Memories of a day filled with trout fishing firsts

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Sometimes when I contemplate the universe, odd thoughts pop into my head.

It just dawned on me, for example, that almost 35 years have passed since I caught my first trout on a fly rod.

I've caught hundreds and hundreds since then, but the memory of that first one still lingers.

It was a damp, cool day in early spring, a day filled with rain showers and blustery winds. Max Robertson had invited me to ride with him to Monroe County's Rich Creek, which at the time was a public fishery managed under fly-only regulations.

I had started fly fishing, if you could call it that, the autumn before.

My tackle consisted of a $30 rod, an inferior reel, a line found in a discount bin somewhere, a tapered monofilament leader and a plastic fly box that contained my first few crude attempts at fly tying. My casting was wretched. The fish mocked me.

During a first-anniversary vacation with my wife, I tried to persuade the trout of Shavers Fork and the Back Fork of Elk to rise to my gosh-awful flies. I got exactly one cautious inspection, followed quickly by a snooty rejection.

I spent the following winter reading, studying, practicing, and wondering if I'd ever catch a fish on a fly. During that time, I met Max and several other veteran fly fishermen. All of them were members of the Kanawha Valley Chapter of Trout Unlimited, and bless them, they took me under their collective wing.

They told me about the "angling arts" classes they were teaching that winter. I signed up for Max's beginner-level fly-tying class and Mike Gilzow's beginner-level rod-building class. By the time spring rolled around, I had built a functional graphite rod and was able to tie flies that, while not good, were at least functional.

In early April, Max invited me to go fishing with him, and we ended up on the banks of rain-swollen Rich Creek. The water was off-color, but not too murky to fish. Max suggested I try "fishing wet," and pointed me toward a section of stream and went off to do his own thing.

I flogged the water for two hours and never got as much as a nibble. When Max caught up with me, he showed me why.

"You don't have any weight on your leader," he said. "Do you have any sinkers?"

I reached in my bag and pulled out a container of lead BB shot. Max suggested I crimp two or three of them to my leader, and then he inspected the fly I was using.

"Do you have any other wet flies or streamers?" he asked.

I showed him my fly box. He reached in and pulled out a brown Marabou Muddler. "Try this one, and make sure to keep it close to the bottom," he advised.

After a short walk upstream to a likely looking bend, I plopped the heavily weighed leader into the swift current and, following Max's instruction, swung the rod to follow the line's downstream drift.

WHAM! The tip of the line darted upstream. I set the hook and felt the rod throb with the weight of a hard-fighting fish.

It turned out to be a wild brown trout, 12 inches long, with silver-haloed black spots and a wine-red adipose fin. I unhooked the little streamer from its jaw, gave it a quick once-over and released it.

That trout turned out to be a five-way first for me: First trout on a fly, first brown trout, first fish on a fly I had tied, first fish on a streamer, and the first fish on a rod I had built.

It's hard to believe 35 years have passed since that wet spring day, but they have. And you know, I don't think I've ever thanked Max and Mike and the other TU members who mentored me.

That is, until now: Thanks, guys. You set me up for a lifetime's worth of good times, and I am grateful.


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