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Life on the Fly

Tad Howard fishes at a private, high-mountain lake near Jefferson, Colorado. Photo: Wayne Armstrong

Fishing guide Tad Howard can’t remember every trout his clients have hooked, but he’ll never forget the guy who caught a cow.

“It was standing on the bank behind him and he hooked it on his back cast,” says Howard (JD ’03), a 28-year-old Front Range guide. “The cow took off running and broke the line. It was pretty amazing.”

Then there was the mallard that a different angler snagged. Howard had to catch and unwrap the distraught duck, which forcefully cried “foul.”

Another fisherman thought he’d bagged a big one until he noticed the fish had fur. The angry muskrat quickly fled, presumably to warn others here were rookies on the river.

A not-so-difficult choice

With Colorado fly-fishing a world-renowned, $153 million industry, the state’s rivers and streams aren’t likely to run short of rookies any time soon. While of some concern to the millions of rainbow, brown and cutthroat trout that risk being caught, that popularity holds major meaning for the trees, bushes, rocks, wildlife, floating branches, anglers and fishing guides that actually will be caught.

“I’ve had probably hundreds of hooks stuck in me just about everywhere: ears, neck, hands,” says Howard. “One of the beauties of barbless hooks is they come out of the fish easily and they come out of you easily, too.”

One novice angler on a trip last spring managed to catch both himself and Howard with the same line on the same cast. No damage — just another semi-mortifying moment for a Sturm College of Law graduate who rejected life in a courtroom for life on the river.

Howard has no regrets. When he applied to DU law, he was fishing for a school that was outstanding. By the end of his first year he’d decided it was more important to be out standing in the South Platte, Roaring Fork or the Arkansas.

So upon graduation, the veteran fisherman boxed up his JD, grabbed a fly rod and strode into the mystic, where white water smooths ancient rocks and sunlight dances on the river’s slicks. Where each day he could scout the rapids and survey the ragged shoreline for shadows that might be fish. Or gauge pools in the still of the morning and study insects for clues to what the trout were eating. Always checking for an edge to help put a client in the best place to catch a big fish.

Forget writing briefs and arguing cases. Howard’s heart yearned for tranquil places where the whine of the line spins out “reel” appeal.

“I’d go to class, then on the weekends I’d be guiding fishing trips,” he says. “I was doing probably 80 to 100 trips a year every year I was in law school.

“There was something about sitting behind a desk the rest of my life that didn’t appeal to me.”

The sentiment may not be lost on practicing attorneys, who are among the steady stream of businessmen and pro athletes who sign up with Howard’s company, Colorado Trout Hunters, for a day stalking fish. But it doesn’t explain why sportsmen do it when it’s 3 degrees.

“That was the coldest I ever fished,” Howard says. “If you stood on a rock too long your boots would freeze to the rock.

“I know a local angler who lost two fingers from frostbite while winter fly-fishing.”

Loss of body parts is rare, guides insist, but it underscores the passion with which trout fishermen regard their sport. Outfitters advise anglers to bring “fingerless gloves, fleece coat, warm hat and long underwear” in winter as casually as they recommend sunscreen and rain gear the rest of the year.

“There are guide services that run out of Steamboat, Vail and other places that take you out to the river on a snowmobile,” says Gideon Dionne (BSBA ’07), who has fished in Wyoming in a 40-mph blizzard with near whiteout conditions.

“One of the best days of fishing I’ve ever had in my life,” he says, adding that he’s fished when it was 15 degrees and his waders — neoprene overalls with booties that fit into rubber hiking-style boots — had sprung a leak.

“I was standing out there freezing, thinking, ‘What am I doing?’ And then all of a sudden I catch 10 in a row and it makes it all worthwhile.”

Anglers insist winter fishing offers a lot. Rivers are wide open compared to the elbow-to-elbow “combat fishing” that sometimes goes on in the summer. Then too, fish are more lethargic in winter and choosier about what floats into their feeding lanes. That makes fishing more challenging, Howard and Dionne say.

But it doesn’t explain standing hip-deep in frigid, rushing water in pursuit of an aquatic animal they usually toss back in only minutes after hauling it out.

“It’s totally relaxing,” says Brian Harris (MBA ’01), a Colorado mortgage banker who has fly-fished for about five years. “And it’s a cerebral thing as well, making decisions, looking for signs. There’s so much to learn.”

Like how to tell a mayfly from a caddis fly from a midge. When a Rubber Leg Wooly Bugger is the best streamer. Or whether the fly to buy should be an Egg Sucking Hornberg or a Tunghead Soft Hackle Pheasant Tail.

“When I’m 65, I’m still going to be fishing and learning new things and that’s what excites me,” says Dionne, who will work as a fishing guide in Kremmling, Colo., until October, then fly-fish his way through South America until law school begins in the fall of 2008.

For Howard, a transplanted New Yorker who has fished and guided for a quarter century, fly-fishing is somewhat ethereal.

“It’s almost like a form of meditation relaxation,” he says. “You don’t worry about things. There’s no stress when you’re doing it, just the excitement of the fish.”

Throw in a love of nature and a quick degree of success and you begin to see the sport’s powerful allure.

“Catching fish is important,” Howard says, “but learning stuff and enjoying the company of people on the river is probably the most important thing in a day of fishing.”

Fishing as therapy

It’s been that way for centuries. The literature of fly-fishing starts as far back as the Romans in the second century, though it dwindles until The Treatyse on Fysshynge with an Angle in 1496. The writing picks up in a series of 19th-century instructional texts then earns a solid boost from Ernest Hemingway in the 1920s and ’30s. But it isn’t until the 1992 release of the Robert Redford film A River Runs Through It, based on a fly-fishing-centered novella by Norman Maclean, that the sport really hits the big time.

Redford’s film won an Academy Award for cinematography and inspired a three-fold increase in fly-fishing in the five years that followed, raising participation in the sport to an estimated 8 – 10 million.

“All of a sudden it became the trendy, yuppie thing to do,” says Tyler Baskfield, communications manager for the Colorado Division of Wildlife (DOW).

Interest has tapered, but the sport still represents about a third of the $460 million spent annually in Colorado on all types of fishing by the 735,000 anglers who buy licenses each year. The figure is growing at about 2.2 percent per year, Baskfield says, most notably among women.

“(Women) typically pick up fly-fishing quicker than men do,” Howard says. “That’s because they’re more attentive and more willing to do exactly what you tell them instead of thinking they know what to do already.”

Megan Hendricks (BSBA ’07) says fishing with her dad and the “thrill of the chase” are what make the sport magical.

“There are so many factors,” she says. “When I finally do get a fish, I’m really proud of myself because I was able to master those factors.”

Colorado works hard to supply its waters with plenty of catchable fish. The state supports 17 hatcheries and each year releases some 92 million sport fish – including 15 million trout – into Colorado lakes and streams. The most closely monitored trout waters in the 9,000 miles of streams DOW manages are the state’s Gold Medal Waters, 168 miles of scenic waterways that are exceptionally well stocked.

DOW biologists keep fish populations high by electro-fishing Gold Medal streams to ensure adequate “biomass.” This involves running an electric charge through the water to stun the fish and bring them to the surface. Biologists quickly count, weigh and measure their quarry before the fish recover and swim off, presumably with a headache, though Baskfield insists there are no after-effects. Still, the technique is a jolting reminder that the life of a trout holds little to envy.

Haul a fish out of a Colorado trout stream and you’re apt to see scars from other fish or from being caught before. Bag limits vary widely but are generally small and strictly enforced, so fly-fishing increasingly is a catch-and-release sport.

That’s fine with Howard, who hates the taste of fish and never eats it. Besides, he says, the more fish released, the more there are to catch — if you can.

Conventional wisdom of fly-fishing portrays the trout as a wizened, savvy, cold-water predator whose cunning can best even the smartest angler. Biologists, however, say the trout is more of a manic mix of abject terror and lazy, efficient feeding.

“A trout’s mind will not allow it to hide in fear and feed at the same time,” writes biologist Bryant Cochran Jr. “A frightened trout is totally frightened. He runs to his shelter and hides. He is not thinking of hunger or of eating, he is far too busy being scared.”

The fisherman’s job is to find a calm fish that is eager to eat. A bit stupid would help, except that keen vision, hearing, smell and sensors that let the fish taste and touch with its body offset lack of cognitive skill and ably aid even the dumbest trout in adroitly distinguishing real food from the suspicious kind.

Thus, fooling the trout is the game afoot. It begins with “reading the river,” a checklist of tactics for determining where fish live and what they’re eating, which primarily are aquatic insects. Becoming “one with the bugs,” the fisherman chooses the correct “fly,” or imitation insect, for that river on that day.

With the fly securely tied, the fisherman delicately casts the lure du jour into the conveyer belt of water that carries it along as if it were a morsel of real food. If the fish bites, a jerk of the pole sets the hook and the fisherman reels in the quarry, which on thin fluorocarbon line is not as easy as it seems.

“I love the chase, actually finding the fish,” Dionne says. “But the most fun is the fight, feeling the fish on the rod.”

Getting to that point, though, is easy to say, tough to do. It takes practice, Howard says, and knowledge. Then there is equipment. Rods, reels, flies, lines, boots, waders and vests can cost from a few hundred dollars to thousands. Lessons from an experienced guide can help get your feet wet, but it still takes time to learn to tie flies, cast, maintain equipment, differentiate public waters from private and practice fishing etiquette.

“I’ve pretty much caught more trees than I have fish,” Hendricks admits.

Lurking in all of that are potential hazards: twisted ankles or knees from wading over submerged rocks; falls into swift water; eye injuries (fishing is the No. 1 source of sports-related eye injuries, according to the U.S. Eye Injury Registry); sunburn; insect bites; dehydration; lightning strikes and occasional contact with animals.

It’s a good thing landing a fish is such a thrill.

“There are five stages fishermen usually go through,” Howard says. “First, you just want to catch fish. Then, you want to catch lots of fish. Then you want to catch big fish. Then you want to catch lots of big fish. And then you get to a point where you don’t care if you catch fish. It’s just fun to be out fishin’ and figurin’ stuff out.

“And that’s where I am.”

Out standing in a stream.

Teaching others to do what for him comes easily.

Sharing passion for a sport well-illustrated by the old joke: Give someone a fish and they’ll eat for a day. Teach them to fish and you’ll get rid of them for the whole weekend.

“I love the crisp water against my legs and being in the mountains,” Hendricks muses. “It’s therapy, and it’s beautiful.”

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