'I'm pretty good with a rod, but I need three more years before I can think like a fish." — Norman Maclean, A River Runs Through It
My painting and drawing teacher, Chris Alvarez, has gently encouraged me to focus on the process rather than the end product.
Art is life, both simple and challenging, with a pulse driven by the creative process. When people stand around and ogle the creation, they can feel the artist's heartbeat, his physical movements, his emotional roil and toil.
After 50 years of slinging flies at skittish trout on farm ponds, blue-sky lakes and streams that shimmer like diamonds, I've come to realize that fly fishing is a kind of art, too, meaningful and worthy of appreciation whether or not you catch any fish.
And in fly fishing there is no piece of equipment as sacred as a fly rod. It is the artist's favorite brush.
Last week, for the first time since 1986, I left my old Eagle Claw fly rod — damned near my significant other — at home, and drove to the South Platte River with a new outfit. I was sneaking off to have an affair.
This new rod was kind of a twiggy gal, 10 feet, 6 inches from nose to tail. She's a game-changer named Tenkara, a rig that employs a short length of line and leader attached to the tip. There is no reel, no messy line management, no tangles at your feet. The name references a traditional style of fly fishing that originated in Japan.
I borrowed the rod from Mountain Chalet, where different rod weights, lengths and set-ups cost from $170 to about $220. They're also available at Angler's Covey.
As with so many activities, fly fishing has become buried beneath new gadgets, always meant to make things easier and yet often managing to drain the fun. It becomes depressing and expensive to always need stuff. But this new instrument held promise in simplifying the process. I had to try it.
The Tenkara telescopes in on itself, one section sliding into the other, and fits in a 22-inch tube. I tucked it under my arm and my buddy Ryan Johnson and I hit the trailhead at about 6 a.m. We raced the sun toward a backcountry stretch of the South Platte, a ribbon of water known by fly fishermen everywhere.
The Tenkara system comes with a spool of line — you can choose between braided or a light fly line — plus a short leader. The spool fits in your front pocket. There are also special Tenkara flies for sale, but I chose to go with my old-school Colorado favorites, a woolly worm, which looks like a black caterpillar, and an elk-hair caddis that skates spastically along the water's surface. If the fly rod is the artist's brush, his fly selection becomes his color palette.
We climbed along the hillsides and soon were greeted by the summer song of the South Platte rippling through a meadow of wildflowers and willows. Long, hot days bring out many creatures, large and small. Trout know this, and their diet expands with the daylight. I attached the line — easy to do — and tied on the chunky woolly worm.
Though the plain rod-and-line approach stimulated my inner minimalist, I worried that casting might be a problem, like those first nervous dance steps at junior prom. But the Tenkara easily flipped line and fly into the South Platte's secret places. We found a loose rhythm and moved to her music like a tipsy old couple at a polka dance.
Ryan and I talked of our passions — women, mostly, but also mountains, and raising kids. We sorted through life's mysteries, as fishing friends must do. Holding the Tenkara high above the willows, I coaxed the woolly worm along a shady bank, and I thought about these things.
Chris's art lessons are dead-on accurate. Focus on the process, let go of the outcome.
It was me, this simple rod, a length of line, and a concoction of yarn and feathers molded around a hook. I knew a trout waited there. And soon enough, a fluorescent rainbow joined in and made art of its own.