Beginner’s Luck

Guest Blogger: Mary S. Kuss, Life-long avid angler, licensed PA fishing guide, founder of the Delaware Valley Women’s Fly Fishing Association

The term is almost cliché, in a number of different pursuits. With far more frequency than one would expect, a rookie sometimes manages to do with apparent ease what the more experienced practitioner finds to be quite challenging. This would be frustrating enough, but often the novice rubs salt into the wound by saying something like, “I don’t see why everyone thinks this is so hard to do.” Beginner’s Luck seems to affect fishing in general, and fly fishing most of all.

The legendary Letort Spring Run, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, was the setting for a classic case of Beginner’s Luck. In recent years this magnificent stream has suffered a variety of negative impacts due to development in its watershed. Even so, many large trout still reside among its deep channels and lush weed beds. The stream flows through a meadow, with boggy soil along the banks in many places. Vibrations from a careless approach will alert the big, wary trout long before you ever get a cast off. You’ll see an impressive wake streak away upstream, and curse your clumsiness. Incredibly complex currents pull your leader and fly hither and fro, making a drag-free presentation maddeningly difficult. Tall weeds snatch at your backcast. Wading is all but impossible due to a silty, sucking muddy bottom, and wading would only spook the trout anyway. The difficulty level poses a formidable challenge for any fly fisher.

One day at the fly shop where I clerked for a number of years, one of our regular customers came in to tell us about his recent, first-ever visit to The Letort. He had caught a very impressive Brown Trout, and had photos to prove it. He said he couldn’t understand why everyone made such a fuss about how hard it was to fish the famous Letort. In that moment, my personal history with this stream flashed before me. The many times I’d fished the Letort, how hard I’d studied the writings of the masters—Fox, Marinaro, Koch, Shenk. The fact that despite having hooked a number of trout there, I had never managed to land one. Maybe that’s because all of the trout I’d hooked had been big enough that there was no stopping them from running into a weed bed, and I’d never been able to extract any of them. My normal courtesy and composure with customers completely snapped. I pointed my finger at the man and said, “You go back there and catch another one like that, then we’ll talk about how easy it is!”

Brown troutFor a number of years, I’ve been putting together a foursome of anglers for a trip to northeastern Ohio in April for Steelhead. The very first time I did this, I was short one person for the camp roster as the departure date got closer and closer. In desperation I asked a new member of our local women’s fly fishing club, the Delaware Valley Women’s Fly Fishing Association, if she would like to go on the trip. This woman was quite enthusiastic, but new not only to fly fishing but to any kind of fishing. She’d joined the club because she thought fly fishing would be a nice hobby now that all of her children had launched and the nest was empty. I carefully briefed her on what Steelhead fishing was like, including the necessity of buying a suitable 7-weight rod outfit. She was undeterred, so off we went on the trip. I asked the guide we’d hired to take her under his wing, explaining that she was a complete beginner. He took that in stride, and did a superb job of helping her. Up to this time, this woman had not caught a single fish, on any kind of tackle. Her first fish ever was a 10 lb. Steelhead on a fly rod. Although we didn’t keep track, I honestly believe that she was high-hook among us for the trip. We all cautioned her that it would not always be like this.

The final Beginner’s Luck story I’ll relate occurred in Potter County, Pennsylvania at the Women’s Fly Fishing Clinic at Kettle Creek Lodge that Rabbit Jensen and I ran for several years. One of our participants had a husband who was an orienteering enthusiast. She was not interested in that activity, and was looking for something she could do while he was running through the woods with his compass. She settled on fly fishing, and showed up at the Clinic with a perfectly awful rod that a friendly neighbor had dredged up out of his garage. We set her up with a loaner rod and reel. We started everyone off with some practice casting on the Lodge’s lawn. Although she was not a natural caster for whom the process was very easy, she did progress to the point that she could get the line out and manage it adequately.

After dinner it was off to try Kettle Creek’s special regulations area. Our rookie had plenty of luck. I tied on a caddis dry fly and put her on a fast, riffle-run that I knew consistently held trout. She landed a 15-inch Rainbow and a Brown that looked like the first fish’s identical cousin. Everyone congratulated her when we returned to the Lodge for the evening, and the more experienced anglers warned her not to expect that kind of success all the time.

Mr. Miyagi

Mr. Miyagi

Except that she continued to catch fish like falling off a log for the entire weekend. At one point we nicknamed her “Mrs. Miyagi.” This was a reference to Mr. Miyagi, the character played by Pat Morita in the first Karate Kid movie. In one scene, the old man and his apprentice are trying to snatch flies out of the air with chop sticks—with the clear implication that success was impossible. Amazingly, the kid actually manages to catch a fly. Mr. Miyagi’s incredulous response is, “You beginner luck.”

On the final evening of the Clinic, we fished on a long, deep pool. We had the participants spread out over the length of the pool, and I had put our rookie at the lower end. I knew there was a big Palomino holding there. (In case you don’t know, a Palomino trout is a Rainbow Trout mutation that is a light orange color all over and which sticks out in the stream like the proverbial sore thumb.) As we waked to the spot I had in mind, there was a large rise against the far bank. “Is that him?” the rookie innocently asked. I told her no, and pointed out the Palomino, a short distance away.

What I was thinking was, “I will come back here tomorrow evening, after the Clinic is over, and try for that riser.” I returned to the head of the pool and began working my way back down, checking on each student as I went. A few minutes later I glanced downstream just in time to see the rookie’s rod come up then take a deep downward bend. “Holy cow!” I yelled, and ran down to help. She did not have the Palomino, as I’d expected. She had a very large brown trout, which we landed and released. I asked where she’d hooked it, and she confirmed it was right where we’d seen the rise earlier. Dang, I sure didn’t expect that.

The next morning, our final fishing of the weekend, our rookie got another nice trout very quickly. Feeling confident, she went exploring upstream on her own. A short while later she returned and said, “I just got a 13-inch Brook Trout, and I believe I’ll quit on that one.”

Some people will tell you, “There’s no such thing as luck, you make your own luck.” All I can say is, if you think there is no luck involved in fly fishing it’s only because you’ve never witnessed events like those recounted above. I’ve also heard it said, “It’s better to be lucky than to be good.” I think that’s more on the mark, although of course the best thing is to be both lucky and good. Few of us mortals achieve that, which is lucky for the fish!

3 thoughts on “Beginner’s Luck

  1. Michael Vorhis

    Great stories Mary. I guess we all have a few recollections of beginners who’ve shamed us or showed us the way. I remember bringing my wife to Yellowstone Park many years ago. (New to the western USA, she’d always heard of the place, so we went…we boarded the plane and awaited take-off, and she said, “Now, the stones really are all yellow there, right?” I could see we were in for an education, but I never thought it would be me who received the most homework.)

    One afternoon while there we picked a spot on the map and made it down to…I think the Lewis river, down near Moose Falls, inside the Park. I set her up with a wetfly and a fishing bubble, and told her to cast into the riffle coming down off a little drop in the river level. I knew I’d never be able to explain the delicate feel it takes to catch something on a wetfly…and I had no idea what wetfly was likely to work there anyway. “Just cast, let it drift, when it gets to the bottom cast into the white part again. Try to have fun.”

    “Okay.”

    I started up the trail to the glide above that drop…but I never got there. There was a scream and she was already kicking a fish to keep it from flipping back into the water. “Okay, okay….” I explained how we take care of fish–we don’t kick them. “Just try it again now,” I said, thinking that if only I could get out of earshot, I’d be forgiven if I didn’t come back to unhook anything or throw anything back.

    “Yay, another!”

    Needless to say I never made a cast. One day I’ll get back to the Lewis and see how it goes, and if I’m lucky I won’t have in tow a rank beginner with a born-in knack for feeling a fish take a wetfly.

    Se shamed me again a few years later on bass lake in Florida, but in my own defense I spent the entire time trying to untangle the birds-nest reel my brother had loaned me. She’d gotten the perfect reel, and was gleefully making casts hither and yon from dock and boat, catching hungry bigmouths, while I sat over on the side untangling and muttering expletives. I’d have forgotten about that story long ago except for the fact that she regularly brings it up even all these years later, how she caught so many and I caught none, conveniently leaving out the part about the piece of junk reel.

    Anyway…now when I go a long time between fishing days, I sometimes console myself, saying it’s now been long enough that I should be able to make use of some Beginner’s Luck. : )

    – Mike

    Reply
    1. Mary S. Kuss

      We all have good luck sometimes, and bad luck sometimes. Some people you go fishing with, and some people you take fishing. When you take someone fishing, and you have bad luck while they have good luck, that’s about as bad as it gets. Particularly when they rub it in.

      Reply

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