Sometimes you’ve got to experiment. Change things up. Put your left shoe on your right foot. Well, maybe not that extreme. But you catch my drift (above all else, stay fly). Without risk taking or experimentation – our great sport would be limited to its origins of dry flies and small streams (not a bad thing). But because we are a species that likes to push the envelope – innovation is inevitable. We will always continue to push the boundaries before us. Don't believe me? Just look around.
Already our sport has progressed from said stream to the salt and from those holy salt flats it has expanded to the blue water in the pursuit of an adrenaline rush so pure and profound that it alters the life paths of even the most determined individuals and puts our existence into sweet, sweet perspective. However, the books have already been written on how to catch most of the badass fish on the planet. Far away fisheries pioneered by the legendary rock star cowboys of previous generations. But where do we draw our inspiration to deviate from the doctrines previously set before us nowadays? Family? Friends? Fish? Boredom? In other words- where do we find the courage to pursue happiness on our own damn terms? Honestly, I don’t know. I just try to fish as often as my body and schedule will permit. I try to adapt as much as possible and figure out the game on my own. Sometimes it’s reinventing the wheel – other times it’s letting the wheel spin. But the confidence to branch off and do something “weird” is a rare trait these days. The desire to forge trails and bushwhack a dying desire - but innovation is inevitable. There will always be individuals weird enough to try something new.
Too many individuals fear failure or ridicule these days. For others it’s loneliness or a bruised ego. But what’s the difference between not catching anything doing the accepted technique and not catching anything on an unorthodox rig? There isn’t one. Except that I guess you fit in with the norm. Doubt will dwell in one’s mind regardless when they fail. So why not make the fresh attempt and try something new and go down swinging?
After only getting one snakehead in the mouth this past year on a fly out of the Tidal Basin throwing just about every fly you could imagine - I couldn’t help but get to thinking….
What was I doing wrong?
Was I doing anything wrong?
Was it me?
Was it the fish?
There were no books for me to reference. No words to follow from the badass rock star cowboys of our sport's distinguished past. There was nothing but blank pages and overzealous blog posts by those fortunate enough to “fool” one of these great fish. I think my heart just skipped a beat.
Long before I became a fly guide - I was an aspiring tournament bass fisherman. In my youthful wanderings, I learned how to flip, pitch, and skip baits under docks. I lost baits in trees, boats, ropes, docks, buoys, living rooms, and on one unfortunate occasion -a cormorant. But eventually, I learned how to read water. I perfected my retrieves and rod action. I avoided the birds and studied and read as much as I could to get inside the head of my quarry. Big fish became the expectation – not the exception. In the end, I realized that most predatory game fish are of an eerily similar like mindedness. Most live in the same places and eat the same variety of things. They rarely deviate from that previous doctrine set before them – their survival instinct too tough to breakdown. So what gives with snakeheads?
The answers are…. well…. still up for debate. With each catch we’re figuring these fish out but the limited catches on fly rods really leave a lot to be desired. In other words – the book on snakeheads is still in the process of being written. From my observations – they are a random beast that loves banded killifish, hates cinnamon, and favors those not looking for them. I’ve heard of one caught on shad flies at Chain Bridge. Another was caught on a nymph in the Tidal Basin. One individual with a good ole fashioned worm and bobber caught one at Fletcher’s Cove. Pretty much all were caught by accident. Hell, Jeremy Wade had to implore a local fisherman to spear one FOR HIM in Thailand. Now that really puts things in perspective.
When I think about the unique opportunity placed before us on our Nation’s River (whether or not you consider these invasives a blessing or curse) – I can’t help but flash to those first pioneering bone fishermen on the flats. How many times did they spook a fish with an errant cast? How many times were they given the fin before hitting pay slime? When did they realize these fish were leader shy? When did everything start to click for those rock star cowboys? The history of our sport is fascinating. However, it is the future that excites me the most. The possibility of pioneering an entirely new fishery can't help but get you excited.
I guess it’s time to write some pages in this snakehead book. Let’s get weird.
Over drinks one evening, my older sister Catherine brought up an interesting question: "Would your 7 year old self like who you are now?"Probably, I thought to myself.Right?
The discussion began with us talking about how much had changed over the years. How our different life experiences and paths taken - like a trout somehow surviving the volatile, constant flow of a cold mountain stream - had forged our still maturing identities and led us to our current whereabouts in life. In short, we were lamenting our youth's ill-fashioned dreams and time's ability to make you forget them. In shorter - we were having the "we're grown up" talk.
A seemingly harmless question that's more complicated than a simple yes or no (evidenced by some profound head scratching from those involved in the discussion), Catherine's inquisition brought about some serious soul searching. But being the youngest, I remembered our aspirations. Embarrassing as it may seem now - Catherine wanted to be the star of Grease*, our brother Andrew yearned to be physically "unbreakable," and our sister Sarah chomped at the bit to become the NFL's first woman linebacker - I'm sad that we lost ourselves and grew up. But the more I thought about it, I was pretty sure that we all had done right by our little selves in one way or another. We were all healthy, content, and employed. All great things for this day in age. But would my 7 year old self approve of where I am now?
As a youth, school was secondary, nap-time unnecessary, and broccoli the most sinister of foes (all themes that continue in my life to this day). A curly headed hellion whose post-preschool snack consisted of Skittles and ice cold Surge Cola (gotta love the 90s), I typically passed those useless days I didn't go fishing by either fishing in the house for furniture against my mother's wishes (pillows fought the hardest), drawing fish in the corner of our living room, or daydreaming about that next time on the water. I was obsessed and on those glorious afternoons where I marched down the hill to my godfather's farm pond armed with a cane pole and worms - you couldn't find anyone happier or more excited to be there (sound familiar anyone?).
Over time, something has had to change. I've grown taller (I'm 6'2, as opposed to 4'5), filled out (215 lbs compared to 60), overcome my fear of the baseball (four-year varsity pitcher in college) and instilled just enough discipline to pay attention in school (graduated college). Hell, I even learned to fly fish (big hands, small flies, and light line are not mutually exclusive entities). But physical growth is superficial, most people eventually gain literacy, and more often than not, you'll pick up a fly rod without breaking it. The bottom line here is that life forces us to change whether we like it or not. No one can stay the same forever. But maybe a small part of them can. Let's see if little Rem and I still see eye-to-eye over some of life's more important details.
Over time, you'll recognize that a rare shot at perfection exists each time on the water. That at any given moment, your cast and retrieve can come together in a brilliantly violent explosion of predatory instinct, primal fury, and indescribable beauty. More importantly though, you'll learn to take things away from your experiences - each catch and failure a lesson in life's grand scheme of things. These lessons will almost certainly make you a better fisherman. But the fish are only part of the equation. You will probably become a better person from all of this, too. You'll learn patience and an appreciation for the little things, the importance of savoring each second in life and inherent beauty in all that surrounds us. You'll come to know the definition of preparedness and the conditions necessary for something to be properly called "working hard." People will initially think you're weird for finding sunrises more appealing than sunsets, full moons giving you vehement mixed feelings (full moons are the best for tarpon and the worst for stripers), or having a pep in your step on a rainy day because the fishing will be badass at a local golf course - but you're fine. Don't worry about them. They're the weird ones. What do they know? THEY (non-fishers) know that our sport bottoms down to a brutal combination of physical skill, technical precision, and luck. Unfortunately, this is somewhat true. But as YOU know by now, it's more than that.
This sport helps defines your identity. You'll have to adapt, go beyond your comfort zone and get good at something new very quickly in order to succeed. But isn't that the same as life? If you want to succeed, you can't be afraid to take that cast. Because when everything works - that sweet moment of predatory malcontent, where the subtle thump and hookset become the culmination of your life's achievements to that point in time - time seems to stand still. But for every great day of fishing, you'll have days that you'll want to forget. Remember that karma works both ways.
There will be excursions where your physical and mental limits are pushed, sometimes even broken. Trips where it seems that some mysterious, dark force is ruining your life. Days where you are without a doubt cursed, your heart and rod breaking almost simultaneously. Hell, there will be some fish you will never, ever catch. But that is life. That is fishing. You can never give up the chase. One cast can change your life. I guess we're getting away from the original question though, so I should finish up.
A wise man once told me, "The only ways to get better at fishing are to fish with someone better than you or to fish water you've never fished before." I agree wholeheartedly with his sentiment. But there is something bittersweet in that notion. With that logic, the greatest fisherman in the world must be someone who has seen and accomplished everything. And while I'd love to fish with that individual (their process sounds fun), the end result doesn't. Because when it's all said and done, it's the mystery of this sport that keeps bringing me back to the water's edge.
I know that every day is a clean slate with a new accomplishment or milestone to achieve. There is the beautiful possibility that on any given cast, my life can change. That at any second, I can see something completely original and genuine. Once that surprise is gone, the elation of my shaky hands and butterflies replaced with dull content and smug expectation, there will be no thrill or joy for me in this sport. That, my friend, is the person my 7 year old self would not like to be around or, more importantly, fish with. Safely, I can say that I'm not there yet. I still get excited whenever I feel the thump of a hungry game fish. I still have time.
When life is all said and done, it's about the relationships made and roads traveled - the people met and waters explored. Fishing, although a staple of my life, is about putting things in perspective. Whether it's spooking that giant redfish on a quiet flat by making the slightest noise with your feet and having the coolness to laugh it off, seeing a big rainbow trout aggressively attack your strike indicator when you've seemingly thrown every fly in your box at it and not breaking your rod, or having a sailboat sail over your pod of tarpon on an otherwise empty flat and not engaging in homicidal behavior - this sport has undeniably left its mark on me. When something breaks or doesn't go my way, it's okay. Things will get better. The fish will bite again.
Last Cast: So would my 7 year old self like who I am now? I can't be entirely sure. I'm sure we'd get along on certain things and we wouldn't understand each other on others. But I do know one thing - we'd like fishing together.
*For the Record, Catherine states that she "never wanted to star inGrease," but "just really really really loved the movie", which even she admits, "might be weirder."
Remick Smothers is a native son of the District of Columbia and the founder of FlyTimesDC. A self taught fly fisherman and fly tier, Rem graduated from Rhodes College with a double major in fly fishing and English in 2012. He has been celebrating the fly life ever since. Just remember, if it's dark out, there's a shark out. Above all else, stay fly. #flytimesdc