Ever since I saw the film, A River Runs Through It, I’ve wanted to learn how to fly fish. The grace and beauty of those opening shots—Norman Maclean casting in the river at the golden hour, his line rolling like waves through the air—showed me it was possible to know stillness in movement. Nearly 20 years after those seeds were planted, I had my opportunity.
I believe that studying with a true master is the most efficient way to learn. I've trekked to the Himalayas to discover the teachings of Tibetan mysticism and I've wanted to learn to golf in Scotland, where the game was born. Now, I had my chance to learn to fly-fish on the river with a master fly guy who held a world record and several Master Angler Awards.
A 45-minute drive from Vail, Colo., led me to Paul in Rancho Del Rio. Paul runs his outfitter operation out of an old 20×10 log cabin on the banks of the Upper Colorado River marked by a little sign that reads, “Fly Shop.” The foyer walls were covered with snapshots of grinning folks holding up their trophy catches. I wondered: was I going to be lucky enough to have my mug-shot up there by the end of the day?
As Paul fired up his old whirring PC, he explained that we would be doing catch-and-release fishing. The idea caught me off guard. Catching a fish and then voluntarily setting it free goes against everything I’d been taught growing up in Vietnam—if you go to the trouble of fishing and you’re lucky enough to catch something, you should eat it! I could hear my mom admonishing me, “Troi oi (Oh Heavens)! All the starving people in the world, and you’re going to throw back perfectly good food?” I mentioned this casually to Paul, adding that if I wasn’t going to eat the thing, then I certainly didn’t want to harm it for the sake of sport. He eased my concerns by showing me the barbless hooks we’d be using and assuring me that we would take every precaution to minimize stress to the fish.
Learning something new means having to withstand the awkward, insecure feelings of being a beginner.
Our waders hung on a hook outside the cabin, next to a shelf that held our boots. As I put on my gear, the reality began to sink in. Learning something new means having to withstand the awkward, insecure feelings of being a beginner. That I was willing to do, but the girlie girl in me still wanted to look as good as possible while doing it. I was sporting a branded straw cowboy hat—something Kid Rock might wear—to keep the sun off my face, a red shell to protect from the wind, and tinted 15 SPF lip-gloss in a matching shade. Much to my disappointment, none of these attempts at looking glam overrode the bulbous effects of overall waders on a five-foot-one, well-endowed woman. As Paul cinched up the belt on the waders around my waist, he whispered, “This isn’t a fashion contest. We want you to be warm and comfortable.” As it turned out, among Paul’s many gifts was his ability to read minds, of both fish and humans.
Paul hadn’t always been a fishing guide. He’d spent time in rock bands, as a chef running resort kitchens, and making sure lift lines moved smoothly on Vail Mountain. He’d survived childhood leukemia and the loss of many loved ones, and through it all, fishing was the one constant that kept him afloat. Now, being able to call the Upper Colorado his office is a privilege that he believes comes with a great amount of responsibility for the stewardship of the river and its wildlife.
Paul explained: “Trout are a cold water species. The three main ingredients to good trout habitat is cold water, plenty of oxygen and plenty of food. Usually, if the water remains cold, the oxygen and food are a given.” But, with the threat of further flow diversion to the Front Range communities, the river and its inhabitants are at risk of the affluence being reduced to a trickle, and the waters becoming increasingly warm. Paul’s love for his cherished trout inspires him to do what he can to preserve this precious resource, whether it’s organizing community river cleanups, writing impassioned articles or educating his clients.
Originally published in Twine Magazine