Fly fishers have many reasons for why they pursue this crazy passion. The list is long and varied but one thing you will hear from almost all fly anglers is that they feel more connected to the fish and the environment when they take up fly fishing. You give the fish an advantage and even the playing field a little more when you start dead drifting size twenty midges or chucking half a chicken on the end of a ten weight. But that’s what we love! It’s the challenge and the thrill of the pursuit and the way your hands shake with adrenaline after releasing that beautiful fish and knowing that you truly accomplished something that is not easy by any stretch. Some of us though are just gluttons for punishment. From time to time we feel the need to step it up another notch and take the challenge to epic proportions. How does one do that you ask? By stalking these fish on foot.
Masters week in Augusta is a buzz of excitement and people and parties, but for most of us it’s merely a great excuse to get out of town for a week. My family and I were fortunate enough to spend our spring break on a beautiful little gem nestled in between Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. Anna Maria Island is a tiny sliver of land with beautiful white sand beaches and crystal clear gulf waters on one side, and expansive flats of grass and mangroves extending into the bay on the other side. I spend quite a bit of time at this little oasis but as someone who does not own a boat and can not afford exorbitant guide fees every time I travel down there, I am often relegated to fishing on foot. For the past years this has meant getting up before the sun and walking the beaches looking for fish chasing bait as the light begins to crest the island behind me. While this is fun, it can be hard to be successful between dodging joggers and speed walkers with every back cast and being at the mercy of winds and tides. But this trip I had a plan. I was trying something new. I had reliable intel that if I ventured on to the other side of the island I could access these bays and mangrove coves and most likely have much better shots at fish. With my pig headed confidence and naiveté forming the perfect combination for failure, I ventured out to what we call location X.
I had picked clean the brain of my informant and dropped pins on the map on my iPhone. One of the perks of having a small computer in your pocket at all times. I walked along a path for what felt like an eternity before I finally reached the first spot I intended to explore. And to be honest, I wasn’t going any further seeing as I am not a picture of fitness so this spot was getting explored whether it looked promising or not. Luckily for me, not but two minutes after arriving at this location and the serene cove I was examining began to explode as snook and small tarpon chased bait off of the flat and exploded through them as they reached the edge of the mangroves. Like a bull in a china shop I entered the water and began wading around the edge of this flat to try and reach the action I had just witnessed.
The only way I can accurately describe the next 30 minutes is with a classic, Elmer Fudd and Bugs Bunny. Of course I was poor Elmer. I thought I was being quiet and sneaky and I was so sure these fish had no idea I was there. Under the surface of the water however these fish were laughing at me and taunting me and thwarting every effort I made. It took me quite a few failures to realize these fish were smart and on high alert for giant air breathers traipsing through their home. I finally settled in and realized I needed to let the fish come to me. Shortly after my epiphany a small school of snook came out of the deeper water and begin to cruise the flat in my direction. I’m smart enough at this point to be patient with my cast and not rush to the first fish I see. If i do say so myself, I laid out a near perfect cast and dropped my baitfish pattern right where it needed to be. As the snook approached I began to steadily strip my fly. My heart sank as the leader of the pack, and biggest of the pack, snubbed my offering and swam by as if I didn’t exist. But the next fish, not quite as big but luckily for me also not quite as smart, turned and focused on my fly like a heat seeking missile. I had no time to even think about messing this up before the fish slammed my fly and the cove erupted with the fish splashing and me splashing and line peeling off my reel. I was able to tame the wild beast and snapped a few photos in the shallow reeds before releasing him to fight another day. I knew better than to push my luck and ended the day on a high note.
There are many reasons that I love fly fishing, and depending on the conversation I will tell you a different reason is the most important reason every time. But this truly is what makes me fall more in love with fly fishing every day. First of all, I got to spend an afternoon calf deep in a breathtaking backwater estuary watching blue herons and egrets stalk with a grace I only wish I possessed. But second of all, and probably more importantly, I was faced with a challenge that I didn’t think I had the skill to overcome, and I figured it out. I didn’t give up and go home, I didn’t move on to another spot and blame my lack of success on outside forces, I looked at my situation, learned from my mistakes and made the necessary corrections to make myself successful. If that’s not a metaphor for every day life then I don’t know what is. Yes fly fishing is fun, and yes it takes you to the most spectacular places, but more than anything it teaches you about yourself and shows you that you can adjust and overcome challenges. And yes, after all that my hands were most definitely shaking as the emerald green back of that gorgeous snook cut through the water and forgot all about me. But I will not soon forget him, or the lessons I learned that day.