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Fall 2002, Volume 20.1

Conversation

 

Craig J. Oberg

"One Nine-Inch Rainbow"— A Last Conversation with Gary LaFontaine

 

Picture of Gary LaFontaine.The Evergreen Care Center in Missoula, Montana, was like most nursing homes, pleasant but a little depressing. Gary's room was at the end of one hall; a computer rested on a table along with pictures of Gary and friends with big trout on famous rivers. Even in a state of rapidly declining health, Gary welcomed an opportunity to be interviewed. Propped up in his wheelchair, unable to move, barely able to lift his head, his voice struggled to give voice to his thoughts. Yet, Gary was still his gracious self—funny and thoughtful. The interview lasted three hours with Gary slowly articulating his thoughts on writing, fishing, and a life well spent.

Four years ago Gary LaFontaine visited Weber State University. He was doing what he loved most, sharing the joys of fly fishing with young people. It was just his nature to give of himself. Award-winning writer and fly fishing innovator, renowned entomologist and ardent environmentalist, Gary LaFontaine delivered a masterful lecture on the science and joys of fly fishing. Later that semester he met the Weber State University Honors class at Little Hole on the Green River below Flaming Gorge Dam. Even then he was suffering the debilitation of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS). Walking with difficulty, arms hanging limply at his sides, his voice was still strong and his mind clear. No one standing on the shore that overcast spring morning will forget the two hours that were spent being instructed on the finer points of fly presentation by Gary as his good friend, Jack Dennis, stood hip deep in the water demonstrating each technique. Gary leaned against a large rock for the two
hours, sharing techniques and tales, and patiently answering every question. Even Peter Matthiessen, invited author, listened intently to the fishing master, acknowledging later to Gary how much he enjoyed the fly fishing instruction. That evening Gary took time to talk to each student, finding out about their day on the water and offering advice for the next day of fishing. It was a herculean effort for someone who could not get out of the car without assistance.

It seems that fly fishing organizations nearly ran out of awards for Gary LaFontaine. Gary's first book, Challenge of the Trout, was a main selection of the Field and Stream Book Club in 1976. Gary's second book, Caddisflies, won the 1981 United Fly Tyers Book of the Year Award and was named one of the finest fly fishing books of the past 30 years in Trout magazine. This book has become one of the most enduring classics in modern fly fishing lore. The Dry Fly: New Angles won the 1990 United Fly Tyers Book of the Year Award, the 1991 Arnold Gingrich Memorial Award, and was listed by Tight Line as one of their Top Ten Fly Fishing books for the decade of 1990-2000. Gary followed these two books with Trout Flies: Proven Patterns winner of the 1993 Book of the Year Award. United Fly Tyers, a national fly fishing organization, carefully reads and evaluates every fly fishing book published during the year. Their Book of the Year Award is presented annually to "the fly fishing book that makes an outstanding addition to the body of literature in our sport." His last book, Fly Fishing the Mountain Lakes, was to start his new Summer of Discovery Series, but, unfortunately, the series was never finished. Gary authored hundreds of articles in outdoor magazines, narrated countless videos, ran a publishing house, and even wrote the Book Mailer, a cult quarterly fly fishing newsletter. In 2001, Gary received the Roderick Haig-Brown Award from the Federation of Fly Fishers for lifetime contributions to angling literature, joining such noteworthy authors as Thomas McGuane, John Gierach and Nick Lyons.

Gary lived the life we all want, totally immersed in what he loved and with the innate ability to share that life with all his friends. Gary finally succumbed to ALS (Lou Gehrig's disease) on January 4, 2002, in Missoula, Montana.

Picture of Craig J. Oberg.

 Craig Oberg is Professor of Microbiology at Weber State University where he also serves as department chair. In addition to microbiology courses, he developed and taught the course "Epistemology of Fly Fishing." Author of over 70 scientific articles, he has also co-edited The Search for Harmony— Essays on Science and Mormonism (with Gene Sessions) and Fishing Untouched Waters— Pontoon Craft Technique and Tales (with Dave Scadden).

 

What brought you from the East Coast out to Montana?

I came out here to fly fish. My mother married my stepfather when I was six years old. His name was John Gaudreau. He was the kindest, sweetest, gentlest man in the whole world. He changed my life. I was a hyperactive kid. I was probably a difficult kid to raise, and he taught me to be a kind, gentle person. He taught me how to fish. The doctor told him he needed a hobby to relax, so he took up fishing, and my mother said he had to take me along. Spending the whole day in a boat with a hyperactive kid couldn't have been that much fun, but he had a tremendous amount of patience. He would tell me stories about the lures in the box and everything else. I caught my first fish with him. I learned to love fishing by being with him. I started reading about it. I would read authors like A. J. McClane and Joe Brooks and Ray Bergman in the outdoor magazines—Sports Afield, Outdoor Life and Field and Stream. I went to the University of Montana in Missoula after I graduated from high school. By reading those articles in which everybody wrote about Montana, I was in love with Montana before I ever saw it, so there was no choice for me. I came out here to go to school. I ran track and I flopped totally. But my fly fishing career blossomed wonderfully, being in the land of trout.

Had you been fly fishing before coming West?

Yes, I started fly fishing when I was nine years old. I was born and bred to be a bass fisherman. I was very good with a spinning rod and a bait casting rod. But A. J. McClane, Ray Bergman and Joe Brooks wrote about catching bass with fly rods, so I wanted to catch bass every way possible. That's how I got my first fly rod, and a fly rod naturally leads you to trout. Mill Brook was a private stream near my home in Connecticut owned by the Windsor Rod and Gun Club, so I became a catch and release poacher.

What drew you to love fly fishing?

My stepfather helped me develop the love of fishing. But I think also by telling me all those stories, he drew me to the love of storytelling and writing about it, too. The love of reading came from my mother. The first book I fell in love with was Ray Bergman's Trout. I just devoured that book; I loved it. Then I met a man who was the caretaker of the Mill Brook Windsor Rod and Gun Club, Harry Ramsey. He had a large private library and let me read all of his books. Harry Ramsey taught me quite a bit about fly fishing, but mostly I had to teach myself. Stumbling around that first season, I caught a nine-inch rainbow. I was flailing around getting tangled up, but that one nine-inch rainbow saved me. That one nine-inch rainbow leaping around—I was in love forever.

Did you begin writing once you got out to Montana and began to fish?

My mother taught me how to read very early. I could read before I went to school. She used to read to me constantly when I was small. I always wanted to be a writer. When kids in kindergarten said they wanted to be a policeman or a fireman, right from that early age I said I wanted to be a writer. I never wanted to be anything but a writer. I wrote my first article when I was fifteen years old, in 1963, in the November issue of Fur-Fish-Game. I was a published author by the time I was in high school.

How have you perfected your craft over the years?

I've worked on it by reading my own writing over and over, finding what I liked and disliked about it. I've tried to make it entertaining. I certainly try to teach people how to fly fish, but that has never been enough for me. I've also tried to make my writing take the form of a mystery and lead people to the answer at the end of the book. I hope it's always been enjoyable to read my stuff. It's never been just enough to write in academic fashion: here's what you're going to say, you say it, and there's what you said. I've always wanted to wrap it up in stories and anecdotes, with a sense of intrigue in the context of being outdoors. We're not solving the mysteries of the universe when we're talking about fly fishing. Some of the stuff I write about can be very complicated and scientific; still, it's a sport. It's an art, and I wouldn't want it to lose the mystery of that either. I still want it to be a game. I don't want people to lose that aspect of it. I want it to be fun.

In your writing, your sense of humor and the enjoyment you feel is apparent. Your friends say you never allow them to become too serious when they're standing in a trout stream.

That's right. It's not life and death, not for me. Sometimes, obviously, when you catch and release, it can be for the fish. The way to live a perfect life is by taking perfect moments and putting together enough perfect moments to block out the insanity of the world. When you're fishing, you put together perfect moments, and in my writing I want to catch those perfect moments. That's why I don't write simply to tell somebody how to do something.

As you battle ALS, you must have a card catalog of perfect moments you can sift through?

Absolutely and certainly right now at this moment in my life it's very important. I've lead a great life.

You mentioned mystery. Were you a big fan of mystery? What led you to try and weave that into your writing?

I was a compulsive reader. I've read just about every genre there is, from science fiction to murder mysteries to westerns. I've read a lot of murder mysteries in my life.

Obviously you like fly fishing, and that's why you focused on it . Why did you select caddisfly entomology and fly pattern development?

I think as writers we often go to the areas of greatest need. Right away I focused on caddisflies because that was the greatest gap I saw in fly fishing knowledge. We have many books on mayflies. I didn't see a great need concerning stoneflies because they weren't as important. The great hole in American fly fishing literature was caddisflies; very little had been done. There was even some question as to whether or not it could be done. It was so complicated. If ever a topic stretched my mind to the fullest, it was caddisflies.

How did you attack such a complicated topic?

If there is one thing that epitomizes my work, it is the inclusion of original research. I think this makes my books unique. Once you do that original research out in the field, then you're not just repeating stuff everyone else has done. Caddisflies took nearly ten years of research, and the writing took a year and a half.

Many of your contemporary fly fishing writers often remark that you don't mind being controversial, you don't mind going at odds with convention in fly fishing, and you force people to defend their own ideas.

I don't try to be controversial. When you do original research, you automatically end up being controversial, whether you want to be or not. You find out that things are different because you are finding new things. When you're finding things that are correct, it doesn't matter what anybody else said. You're applying the scientific method, and the scientific method is right. They can have all the opinions they want in the world, but unless they can back it up with science, it doesn't matter what they think or write.

How did you utilize the scientific method in your work?

We were the only ones to apply the scientific method and the only ones who did the scuba work. The thing to remember is that Caddisflies is a ground breaking work not just in fly fishing, but also concerning entomology. We sent all of our samples to Dr. Oliver Flint at the Smithsonian, and they expanded the range of many caddisfly species. For example, the caddisfly Hydropsyche vexa, found in the mid-west, spread six hundred miles to the west where it had never been found before. For awhile they thought it was a new species found on the Henry's Fork. It turns out to be a major, major hatch on the Henry's Fork.

Tell me a little bit about how you came to mesh literature and science in Caddisflies, which won every award as soon as it came out.

It won the United Fly Tiers Book of the Year Award. As a matter of fact, all of my books, Trout Flies: Proven Patterns and The Dry Fly: New Angles, won the United Fly Tiers Book of the Year Award. There were all these mysteries in fly fishing with no answers, just a lot of stupid guesses. People were developing fly patterns that weren't working based on erroneous guesses. People were doing the same thing over and over expecting different results, and they weren't getting them. We were the first ones to use scuba gear to go down, study the insects, and make the breakthroughs.

Where did you get your scientific training, and how did you become so familiar with the scientific method?

I earned a master's degree in behavioral psychology. I did my thesis on the selective feeding behavior of trout.

How did you talk the psychology department into allowing you to use trout as a behavioral model?

It took a pretty good sales job, but I convinced them it was simply stimulus/response. The trout rising is a response, and the food on the surface is the stimulus.

Did the material from your master's thesis get incorporated into some of your books?

It's incorporated in all of them. It's the theory of imitation and theory of attraction. It is the basis of all my new fly patterns. I learned to use the scientific method in that master's thesis. I used it in everything I did, including double blind testing. Accept nothing on face value—prove it—and that drives people crazy.

What advice do you have for young people wanting to be outdoor writers?

I started writing articles when I was six years old, and my mother taught me how to type so I could send them out to magazines. I heard of a writer who wallpapered his room in rejection slips, so I was planning to wallpaper mine in rejection slips. I had a wall half done when I got that acceptance from Fur-Fish-Game. By the way, my payment for that first article was a five year subscription. I never got a rejection after that from a fly fishing magazine. My basic advice is to read voraciously so you know everything that's been written before. When you start writing, you won't repeat things that have already been written.

What do you try to accomplish with your writing?

Entertain and teach in combination. There's writing that teaches and there's writing that entertains. Mine does both, and I'm not sure there's anybody else in fly fishing that does that.

How does your writing help readers understand the natural world?

I put myself into the natural world, and I show myself being an integral part of it. Too many writers divorce themselves from the natural world in their writings. I show myself having fun fly fishing on the mountain lakes, or in a lightning storm up on the mountain.

You already mentioned a few of your favorite writers. Who were some of the traditional writers that influenced your outdoor and fly fishing writing?

Vincent Marinaro, author of the A Modern Dry Fly Code, is probably my favorite traditional writer. It was such a beautiful book. It came close to being a perfect book. There are so many. Sid Gordon with How to Fish from Top to Bottom. His anecdotes were clownish, but the scientific information was so good. He saw the female caddisfly go underwater and carry air bubbles with her. He said that whoever could effectively imitate that would be a hero. He set up that challenge which I took. That was written in 1950, and it wasn't until the discovery of Antron that a material could effectively imitate those air bubbles of the diving caddis.

How about other traditional writers? Maybe more in the storytelling vein.

Oh, Sparse Gray Hackle and Ed Zurn certainly with his humor were loved. I always read his books, but I read the back page of Field and Stream. "There's Something Fishy in Stonehenge" was one piece I'll never forget. It was a classic. All the English writers, including Frederick Halford.

How about contemporary writers? Who do you find today that most closely approaches what you consider to be the best fly fishing literature?

Among the how-to writers, Gary Border has always been a big favorite of mine. I wish he would write more. Among the storytellers, you have to start with John Gierach.

Speaking of John Gierach, he credits you with really getting his first book Trout Bum off the ground.

Well, I wrote the foreword for it.

He stated the publishers didn't want to use that title, and that you forced their hand when you wrote the foreword.

 

Yeah. I wrote the foreword, and they were kind of upset with it because I said John was a trout bum and he should wear the title proudly. There's nothing wrong with being a trout bum. I don't think it was Jim Pruett so much as his father, a proper upper classman, who considered "trout bum" a degrading term. My feeling was, "Okay, admit it, John's a bum." But he's a lovable bum and it was the dream of all of us to forgo the normal responsibilities of everyday life. What Jim Pruett's father wanted to say was, "Well, John's not really a bum; he really is a responsible person." Well, no, John really was a bum. John didn't have a regular job. John lived in a broken down house that he bought with an estate that he had inherited after the death of a parent. He barely lived hand to mouth. He fished most of the time. He was avoiding responsibility. It was the kind of lifestyle that most of us dream about living—if we give up all the trappings of middle-class life, if we don't worry about being responsible for anything or anybody. Most of us can't do it because we have families, we have houses, we have bills, we have all those things. But John was different. You had to admit that to start off with. So, yeah, I forced their hand by that foreword, portraying John as what he was, in a humorous fashion, in a lovable fashion, in a truthful fashion.

How did John Gierach come to your attention?

By the quality of his writing in his articles. I wrote to John. He had written a little book before called Fly Fishing the High Country. Trout Bum wasn't his first book. I'd talked to him and invited him to Montana. I had a job one summer taking invited writers around the state, and we fished together up on the Blackfoot Reservation. As a matter of fact, I took the picture of him releasing a huge rainbow up there that appeared on the back flap of Trout Bum. We just had a ball on that fishing trip. John is exactly as he portrays himself in the book, a lovable bum, which is why I could write that foreword; I knew him so well.

As far as other contemporary fly fishing writers, who would you recommend? Who would be some of your favorites?

Lefty Krey. He gets the information across in a down-to-earth way. Jim Babb. He's a lot like Gierach. They say he's Gierach on grits. I'm a little bit uncomfortable listing authors without having my library in front of me. I'm going to start to miss some.

When you read Norman Mclean's book, A River Runs Through It, for the first time, how did you feel?

I felt like it was a wonderful portrayal of Montana life.

Why do you think so much writing, particularly outdoor writing, incorporates fly fishing over other outdoor activities?

There's only one sport that has more books written about it than fly fishing, and that's chess. It's the same reason for both sports. It's a mental game. It's the challenge of trying to catch fish.

Which is also the name of your first book, Challenge of the Trout. I've heard you say that after you wrote that book, you were dissatisfied.

Not dissatisfied. I was growing as a writer. That book was an incomplete effort. Every book I've written since then I wouldn't change drastically. I might expand them, but I wouldn't make changes in them because they are pretty well complete as far as my writing style. Challenge of the Trout was a young writer still trying to find his voice, and I would have to change it drastically. There was only one printing of Challenge of the Trout. It was a very large one, 23,000 copies, but I would never allow it to come back into print.

What would you change about Challenge of the Trout?

It was just overwritten; the writing style was overblown. Like my other books, I tried to blend storytelling with how-to, but I didn't do it very well. The rest of the books do it well; that one did not. Caddisflies does not blend storytelling with how-to. It's all how-to. It's a very dense book because there is so much how-to in it. But Trout Flies, Fly Fishing the Mountain Lakes, and The Dry Fly: New Angles, they all blend how-to with storytelling.

If we look at all the outdoor and environmental literature, where does fly fishing place in that body of work?

I've always considered it the front because it's been my life. I think the quality of the literature swings the gamut, from some of the finest writing down to some of the poorest. I think you could say that about any body of sporting literature, whether you're talking about baseball, football, basketball, or anything else. I received the Roderick Haig-Brown Award this year from the Federation of Fly Fishers, which meant a lot to me mainly because of the person it's named after, Roderick Haig-Brown. You don't have to be a fly fisherman to love Roderick Haig-Brown's writing. He was such a great writer—period. He handled words beautifully.

How do you focus on the words you're going to use? Do you try to make every word
fit, or do you look at each sentence or paragraph?

Since my first book, my writing has smoothed down nicely. Challenge of the Trout used too many words. You learn as a writer that you need enough words to tell the story. In Challenge of the Trout, I was trying to make an impression; I used too many words. Later on I learned to tell the story, to make an effect, not to make an impression. There's a difference. In Fly Fishing the Mountain Lakes, I got better and better at it, and I probably hit that peak where I could really tell a story and still convey information all in one book. I got across everything I wanted to get across.

What is your writing philosophy? How do you define a perfect book?

We were talking about living a perfect life. A perfect book is simply a compilation of perfect thoughts, just as a perfect life is a compilation of perfect moments. You lead a perfect life by squeezing out the insanity, by having so many perfect moments that there is no room for the insanity. A perfect book leaves no room for the insanity. The insanity creeps in by having gaps, too many extraneous words, extraneous thoughts, extraneous paragraphs. When you have the perfect book, it's not a lean or a sparse book. I loved Cannery Row and Sweet Thursday by John Steinbeck. Those I consider perfect books. That's what I tried to pattern Fly Fishing the Mountain Lakes after. They had just the right number of words to get across the effect of the story, and they had the perfect amount of information.

How do you know when you have the perfect number of words down on paper?

I know it in my heart. I never let anybody read anything of mine until it's done. Someone edits after for grammar and spelling, but my books come back virtually unchanged. There is very little editing that ever changes anything in my books.

What process do you follow in writing?

I used to handwrite everything. I would type that handwritten copy and then make minor changes while I was typing.

As you're putting down the words on a pad of paper with your pen, what are you seeing? What's happening?

It flows from my mind onto the paper through the pen. Much of the time it's a lot of scratches and scribbles and overwrites. The fewer scratch outs, the better it's flowing. When it's flowing pretty well, it's going in straight blocks on that paper. A good day would be eight pages. I organize it in my head while I'm taking a nap when fishing.

What do you get asked the most in interviews?

The act of writing—that's the biggest question I always get. Training yourself to be a writer requires that you write everyday. People always ask me why I hand write when I could have gotten a lap top to carry around because it is supposed to be faster. The simple fact is, of course, it's not faster. You can take out a pad of paper and start writing so quickly. By the time someone else sets up a lap top, I can already have a page done. When I write in a notebook, I can write during small blocks at a time. I can write for fifteen minutes when I only have that amount of time. It was always more efficient to hand write. I learned to be a very disciplined writer. Writing is a discipline. It is something you learn to love, to express yourself and to pour yourself into as a person. My first book contained too much posturing. I was writing for effect, not for purpose. I learned to pour myself into later books, and to pour myself in honestly—writing simply to get the message across with no wasted words, the perfect number of words. You have to get the right tone, the right effect, the right tenor, and then it comes out to be the perfect book. I came closest to achieving perfection with Fly Fishing the Mountain Lakes.

If you were going to characterize yourself with one passage out of one of your books, what would that passage be, and why?

Well, there's a section in Fly Fishing the Mountain Lakes. I'm on a mountain ridge during an electrical storm with my dogs. We're trying to cross that ridge to get to some high mountain lakes. The piece talks about vulnerability in the face of a lightning storm and also about a certain amount of stupidity and bravado. I think that probably all of those things characterize me and my need to go fishing. The humor, the writing style—I like that section.

Has fly fishing literature done enough to address environmental issues and needs?

Yes. I think every time we create a fly fisherman, we create an environmentalist. There are many different segments of fly fishing writing: pieces on fly tying, how to catch fish, the joys of fly fishing, even the fly fishing environment. No matter what they are writing about, they are creating a fly fisherman. In creating a fly fisherman, they are creating an environmentalist. So, no, matter what you are writing about in fly fishing, you are creating an environmentalist, and in doing that, you are doing your part to create a better environment.

What do you see as the main issues facing fly fishing today? What are the causes that fly fishers ought to be aware of and engaged in?

Obviously, the environment is a big one. Some of the issues are so big that you wonder if we alone as fly fishermen can have any effect. What do we do if the entire world environment is destroyed? Obviously, trout streams would be destroyed along with everything else. What can we do as a small group about global warming? Possibly nothing, but we've got to try to take care of our own little segment, which are the trout streams. We try to preserve these cold water environments.

Over your lifetime, where have you put your efforts?

I'm on the board of directors of the Rock Creek Foundation. I've worked on a number of other boards including the Clark Fork Coalition, Trout Unlimited, Federation of Fly Fishermen and the Big Hole Foundation. I try to work specifically for the waters that I love and the areas that I love. You can never do enough. You always look back and see you could have tried to do more. We've done well on a national level. Probably the greatest thing I've seen done was the Clean Water Act. Waterways are cleaner now than they were when I was a child. So many waters have come back to life that were once polluted and sterile. We've got more work to do, particularly in keeping development away from all of the streams. You can't make a new stream. We've got to keep the water cool; we've got to keep it clean; we've got to keep it constant.

What advice would you give those who think they want to pursue fly fishing as a hobby?

Tell them to take up golf instead. What I did was set my priorities. When I was small I had to bicycle a long way to fish. After that experience, I made it a priority to live within walking distance of fly fishing water. It didn't have to be the greatest water in the world. No matter where I lived, even in Hawaii when I went out there to be a surf bum for a year, I lived next to a canal. I could fly fish and catch strange things. One time, I caught a rather large bone fish that had come up into the canal. I made a vow I was going to live within walking distance of fly fishing water. I always kept that vow. So my advice is, if you really want to be a fly fisher, set it as a priority in your life and then make your choices accordingly. Now, that's tough because that means job choices, choices in a spouse, choices on where to live—everything becomes secondary to fly fishing. But it made me an incredibly happy life, and it can make an incredibly happy life for others. If fishing just becomes a weekend hobby that you do a few times a year, then fine. But I always find people who are happiest in life are people who are passionate about their hobbies. The people who are not happy don't have a form of recreation that is important to them. Therefore, I would say, if you want to think about being a fly fisherman, set your life priorities towards making fly fishing a very high priority in your life.

What's the main benefit that comes out of your passion?

A happy life. A lot of perfect moments. That passion created a lot of perfect moments, a lot of perfect memories.

You speak of this as almost a religious pursuit. Has fly fishing put you more in touch with God?

Absolutely. I call myself a Christian Pantheist. I believe that God exists in every form of nature. By being in touch with nature, I see God in every living thing. By being so close to nature while fly fishing, the outdoors has become my church.

What is the greatest innovation you've seen in your years of participating with fly
fishing?

Antron. He discovered Antron, and that revolutionized fly tying. I was looking for something to imitate the sparkling air that I'd seen in caddisflies. I was in touch with Dupont. Dupont came to me when Antron was discovered. They had been sending me new synthetics as they came off the line. They sent me the first Antron that was developed. Antron is a kind of nylon that has three flat sides to it, and I knew it was perfect right away. We started the Antron revolution. Now you see Antron in all sorts of patterns.

A hundred years from now, if people are talking about fly fishing and the name Gary LaFontaine comes up, what would you want their response to be to the question, "What was his contribution?"

Oh, probably the book Caddisflies, the way it changed how the world looked at caddisflies.

Do you think caddisflies are still an underutilized group of insects, or do you think people are aware of how valuable they are?

I think there's been an amazing amount of education going on since Caddisflies was written. You cannot realize how far in the dark ages people were about caddisflies before that book was written. We took scuba gear, went underwater, and were the ones who actually realized what was happening with emerging caddisflies. We saw the bright air bubbles created by the caddisfly and discovered the Antron that would match that insect. We developed the emerging sparkle pupa of the diving caddis.

Describe your best fish.

Well, there are the Anaconda Settling Ponds about 14 miles above my house in Deer Lodge, Montana. Everybody thought they were barren because that's where they limed the heavy metals out. But Bob Newell from ARCO called me up and said they had received some calls from a guy living in the trailer there. He wasn't much of a fisherman but he had seen some fish rolling. Bob was a good friend of mine. I thought it was a snipe hunt, but I went out there. Some brown trout had gotten into those ponds which turned out to be super rich. Those trout had been there quite a while, and they were big. I caught an eleven and a fourteen pounder the first week of fishing, the two biggest trout I ever caught on a fly. Both were caught on a bristle leech.

Do you still fish those ponds?

No, those ponds are famous now. People come from all over to fish those ponds.

What was your best fishing experience?

One magnificent day fishing with Justin Baker. I call him "the son I never wanted." My daughter brought home a boyfriend. They broke up after four years, but Justin remained like a son to me. I took him everywhere. He went to New Zealand with Jack Dennis and me. We were there with a guy named Tim McCarthy. The night before, Tim comes in as we were speaking at a club in Christchurch. He asked, "Are you boys in shape?" I wasn't young at the time. I was in my forties. He always addressed us as "boys" or "lads." Of course we were too macho to say anything but "yes." We went up four miles by jeep on a dirt road. Then, we walked three miles down a trail. We came to a cliff, and Tim threw a rope over it. We had to go down that cliff, then cross the stream, and go through the brush. It was a primeval paradise. I started off in the first pool and—bang—nailed a rainbow. There were waterfalls coming off the sides, and you had to cast among the floating pumice. Taking turns, we were catching rainbows and sometimes browns. We had to hike back up to the cliff. We were totally exhausted. Tim just scrambled up and stood at the top, just laughing. I said, "If I get to the top, McCarthy, I'm going to kill you." We had to hike back three miles to the jeep. Just the perfect day—this gorgeous, gorgeous stream—and we caught so many trout. In the last two pools, I caught a five pounder, and Justin caught a five pounder. The last two casts in New Zealand—I consider that the perfect day.

How would you describe yourself as a writer in fly fishing literature? Innovator or rebel?

Innovator, but not particularly a rebel. A rebel is somebody who starts off to rebel. I never started off to rebel. All I did was do the research, and the results turned out to be against everything that had come before. I was just telling the truth. I wasn't rebelling on purpose.

Everyone I have talked to mentions all the fun they have fly fishing with you.

I'm a lot of fun to fish with because I don't take things seriously. That's why I think I'm not a rebel, because a rebel would be super serious and super argumentative. I'm not that way. I'm just out to have a good time and find out what's truthful.

What do you think needs to happen for the fly fishing industry to retain its vitality?

We need more young people. We need more classes in universities. Short of another movie, I think the only way to do it is in a class setting at universities. I don't see how else we're going to do it. You can teach the kids when they are young.

Right now you are battling ALS. How would you say all of your experience in fly fishing has helped you in facing this?

Fly fishing has given me a good life. I'm sure grateful that I lived my life and didn't wait fifty years to retire. I didn't go out every day and work at a factory job that I hated, and then all of a sudden get ALS and regret living the life I led. I led the life that I wanted to lead. I've developed a philosophy of life through fly fishing, and that philosophy has sustained me through my illness.

What is that philosophy?

The philosophy of living a perfect life—of developing a life of perfect moments. Those perfect moments are
now sustaining me.

Do you review them often?

I review them every minute of every day.

Have you started any new projects?

I still want to do Fly Fishing Blue Winged Olives, which would be a book like Fly Fishing the Mountain Lakes. We have so much new stuff on that. That's why I don't want to die before I finish that book. It would waste the research. I hope to keep on writing. I'm not done yet.

Do you have new patterns you've developed as a result of that work?

Well, we have a new pattern called the easy-to-see mayfly; an incredible new pattern that imitates the diving egg-laying blue winged olive. People talk about them being tri-volting, coming out in spring, summer and fall. They never really did have seasons, which explains why there are so many different sizes during the hatch. We discovered so many things about them that I do want to get that book done.

Now that you're battling ALS, how much time do you spend writing and working each day?

Oh, I spend four to eight hours a day working with my secretaries. I am trying to get a writing machine. I'd like to do a rewrite on Trout Flies: Proven Patterns, because we've done so many more patterns since that book. That book contains 62 patterns, and we're up to 84 original patterns that we've developed through the underwater process of scuba diving and testing. I'd like to expand that book into a second edition.


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