We were camping on the James River near Gladstone, Virginia one summer when I was a teenager, and as usual, I had struck off by myself to get away from the rest of the family and spend some time exploring unfamiliar waters. Besides, if I hung around the RV site too long, my dad would put me to work, leveling up the camper, hanging those ridiculous owl lights around the canopy, or something. I had seen a picture in the camp store of some smallmouth bass a guy had caught, and I had only seen a few of them in my life.
I waded out into the water about thigh deep and started casting a small Rapala down and across the current with my spinning rod. Besides me, there were three other fishermen strung out along the river in this section of wide, swift moving water. Every now and then, a fish would take a swipe at my lure, but I couldn't get any to commit. I made my way down toward a large rock about a quarter of the way across, and side armed the bait upstream, and watched it bob and ride high on the current, all the way back down to the other side of the boulder in front of me. About the third time, a fish broke the surface, inhaling my helpless little plug, and ran up the river like a torpedo.
With my rod bowed double, and the drag whining with each run, I was finally able to wear the smallmouth down enough to get my hands on it. When I lifted the fish to remove the treble hooks, I received a round of applause from behind me. I turned, fish in hand, and saw a group of five girls, watching from the bank. They were stretched out there in their bikinis and one-piece swimsuits. A few of the girls were making plenty of noise, as to be sure that I took notice. I released the bass, stepped past the big rock, further out, and started casting again.
I was slinging the plug up the river, and ripping it across on the retrieve. I felt a bit of pressure, now that I had an audience. I opened up my tackle pack and swapped my Rapala for a big Mepps Aglia. On the third cast with the spinner, a fish hit like a freight train. Exactly what I was looking for. I wrestled the chunky bronzeback like the hero I was, and lifted the fish high to admire my great catch.
Again, the cheers and adulations from my crowd rose in exaltation as I released the bass as if it were nothing. My building confidence in my ability as a fisherman led me out deeper, further out into the current, where surely, my personal best smallmouth lies.
What I didn't count on was how much harder it was to stand up in the swift current of the James, once I waded out above my waist. The rocks felt more slippery out there, and I found myself halfway between floating and walking, having a hard time staying in contact with the bottom of the river as I tried to cast. It was about this time when the world turned upside down, and I was suddenly trying to do a handstand in the river, while trying to hold on to my fishing rod and figure out which way was up.
I'm pretty certain that I drank about a quarter of the James River that day. Where I ended up by the time I got stopped rolling in the current was a pocket of slack water about twenty yards from the bank, right in front of where the gaggle of females were seated. With knots on my head and scrapes on my body from rolling and bouncing off every rock in the river, I was in no mood for their side-splitting laughter and hollow remarks of concern. "Oh my gosh! Are you OK?"
With the rod grasped firmly in my left hand, I remember raising the right one, lifting my middle finger toward them. All of the expressions of bemusement on the beauty queens' faces were replaced suddenly with those of abject horror.
I climbed up the bank, and walked upstream, away from the other fishermen, far from the sight of the sunbathing girls. I was determined to catch another fish. I found a stretch all to myself. I stepped down into the water and began casting mindlessly into the sparkling riffles. About twenty casts, and a bass nearly snatched the rod from my hand as it ran with the current. It was a good bass, about a pound. Smaller, but as fiesty as the other two, slightly larger ones were. I chucked the Mepps out again. I saw a man step out of the shade of the bank out into the water, upstream from me.
This guy didn't wield a spinning rod, wasn't fishing with a Mepps or a rooster-tail or a Rapala. Instead, he carried a long, willowy rod, looked to be nine foot long. I watched as he stripped out line and started to make his first strokes, casting out line in tight loops nearly kissing the surface of the water each time. At the end of his leader was something so tiny I could barely see it from where I was standing, but when it lit on the water and floated a ways, a fish took it. That was probably the prettiest damn thing I had ever seen before, and I was mesmerized by the graceful and effortless casting the man did as he worked his way up the run.
I'd seen people on TV and in magazines do this kind of fishing before, but as a teenager, I'd never seen it in real life. I said to myself that I would try flyfishing someday, but I had better stick to spin fishing for now, it was all I had ever known. I watched the man, on and off, for over an hour. I caught two more smallmouth that afternoon. I had almost forgot my humiliating experience from earlier in the day, until I saw the crowd of girls through the trees ahead of me, as they were heading back to their campsite.
I imagined myself false casting across the water in front of them, with a tight loop of flyline stretched out behind me on my backcast, laying the line down in front of me with elegance and accuracy, and watching as a bass explodes on my fly and takes me into the reel's backing. There wouldn't have been applause, cheering, or laughter. There would have been nothing but silence. Awe. An appreciation my skill and angling prowlace.
I spent many years, gear fishing like I always had done, before I decided to give flyfishing a try. I wish back then that I had saved up the money and bought myself a flyrod. When I first picked one up, it just felt right in my hand. I thought back to that day on the James, and how neat it was to watch what I considered, at the time, to be a master. I practiced casting, determined to learn everything I could about the sport. All these years later, and I'm still trying to learn. I still consider myself a novice. What is left of the image in my head of the fly fisherman on the James River that summer has been my model. I remember his casts, the way he mended line, and just his posture as he stood thigh deep in the river, waiting for a fish to take his fly. I hope that some day, a young angler will see me, and feel the same.
As for those mean and nasty girls I encountered on the river that day...
I hope they're all fat and have kids who love to fish as much as I do.