Fly-fishing at the edge of opulence

Pretty in pink: The author takes it to the river in style. photo by Richard Bernabe

“It’s all an illusion,” photographer Richard Bernabe said, directing me as I attempted to get both hands around a 20-inch brown trout that someone else had caught.

To make matters worse, I was wearing a pink shirt (“makes for better photos,” Bernabe assured me) in the company of one of the best fly-fishing guides in the Southeast and one of the best fly-fishing photographers in the country. Both watched with some incredulity as I struggled to control the feisty fish. “Rotate it,” Bernabe instructed, as he crouched in front of me with his camera (which, incidentally, is worth several times more than my car) dangling dangerously close to the surface of the stream. Meanwhile, the trout was doing its darnedest to get out of my hands. “Try to get your reel in there,” Bernabe ordered, a little frustration building in his voice. “I need the Orvis logo in this shot.”

Just as the shutter clicked, the fish leaped from my hands, giving me a good tail-splash before it dove for cover.

It’s all an illusion. Bernabe, who has shot for many regional and national outdoors magazines and is the only working photographer I know who won’t do a wedding for any amount of money, repeated those words like a mantra all day long, as we created one unnatural photo opportunity after another. I was clad head-to-toe in expensive Orvis gear that, similar to Bernabe’s camera, was worth more than my car. Positioning a brand name in a photograph is apparently extremely important when it comes to getting a fly-fishing photo in print.

You think that guide on the cover of Fly Fisherman is wearing a Scott hat by accident? Think again. It’s another illusion.

I met Bernabe on an Internet message board for hardcore fly-fishers, and contacted him after my wife received an internship at Blackberry Farms in eastern Tennessee. I figured that his contacts in the outdoors-magazine industry might get me a shot at writing for one of the big-time publications. Bernabe’s work has appeared in most of them, and is a good bit better and more artistic than the average magazine stock — you know, the quasi-pornographic shot of a white-toothed man wearing splendid gear in an gorgeous setting while holding a gigantic fish that he would like you to believe was caught on a 7X tippet. I sent Bernabe some examples of my work and asked him if he’d like to collaborate on a piece about Blackberry. He agreed.

Blackberry was recently voted the number-one luxury resort in the world by Conde Nast Traveler. It is fabulously luxurious and expensive to match. The fly-fishing lodge there is world-class.

Once Bernabe was on board, I approached the aptly named Rob Fightmaster, director of fly-fishing programs at Blackberry, who kindly agreed to lead us on a morning of fishing on Hess Creek, a small but manicured trout stream that runs through the resort property. Used for instruction and quick-access fishing for the resort’s guests, Hess Creek’s pristine, spring-fed water stays ice-cold and has been stocked full of unnaturally large fish. Fly-fishermen in my income class tend to dismiss streams like that as “pig farms,” given the monumental size and stupidity of their stocked trout. Frankly, I wasn’t too proud to have the chance to fish it, in top-of-the-line Orvis gear, even with a guy named Fightmaster.

It’s all an illusion. Most of the criticism of streams like Hess Creek stems from the fact that they are “unnatural” fishing environments. In wealthy, novice fly-fishermen, they create the illusion of skill. The fish are bigger than they ought to be, and dumb enough for a vacationing executive to catch. We joked, as Fightmaster tied on a double salmon-egg rig (completely unnatural, yet incredibly effective), that Bernabe would have to doctor the photos, removing the eggs hanging from the trouts’ lips and replacing it with, say, a size 22 parachute Adams on a 7X tippet.

Fightmaster and I took turns casting, switching the rod back and forth every time one of us caught a fish. The disparity in our skill levels left the rod in my hand for much longer stretches of time than it was in his, while Bernabe stood on the bank behind me providing such helpful commentary as “Watch out, Roland Martin,” “You’d better check that hook for a set of lips,” and “We aren’t fishing for squirrels.” Bernabe, I might add, is no mean fisherman himself.

Apparently catching fish in an unnatural environment isn’t quite as easy as the detractors say. I found it remarkably similar to catching fish in a so-called “natural” stream.

Fightmaster’s skill with a fly rod was humbling. I was very proud to, after several tries, place my fly next to a branch that hung six inches above the water. But he put it both under the branch and two feet past it, on the first try, and did so again and again — until he handed the rod back to me after hooking and landing a 30-inch brown. I have never fished with anyone who can cast that well, and I’m inclined to believe that it will be a long time before I do so again.

This, at length, is how I came to stand below a covered bridge, struggling to hold onto a fish I didn’t catch. I was wearing the Orvis gear, and the pink shirt that jumped out from the background (without doing much for my self-image), and thus the photo needed to have me in it. An illusion?

I started thinking about the rivers I normally fish: the Pigeon, the North Mills, the Davidson, the Laurel. None of them are untampered-with, none are “natural” environments. All have been stocked and landscaped to some degree to make them more habitable for trout. Some face serious challenges, most notably the Laurel, which is (sadly) being developed. The days when you could find a pristine, natural habitat for trout in the lower 48 states are just about gone. Most of our cold-water fisheries have been either improved for sport fishing in some way or completely destroyed.

But come to think of it, catching fish with an 8-foot wand and luminescent green line isn’t terribly natural itself. Fly-fishing is full of illusions, the biggest being the most important as well: The illusion of food — which in fact is just so much feather and fur — that the fisherman attempts to give the fish.

And then I thought about the fly-fishing industry and the magazines of illusion. Sure, some of their information is bogus crap, and some of their photos are guilty of the worst kind of romanticism. But generally, somebody caught the fish that is in the picture, and most likely they did it with the gear they are conspicuously advertising, whether that is their normal gear of choice or not. So what if they, like myself, caught their fish with a double salmon fly rig? And so what if the fish was stocked, protected and fed pellets on occasion? Is that worse than having no fish at all?

I don’t know if my and Bernabe’s article will ever see the light of the glossy page. If it does, I’ll write about the incredible fishing on Blackberry Farms’ property, about how big the trout are. About how hard they pull when caught. I’ll write about the skill of the guides there and the hospitality of the staff. I’ll write about the beauty of the Southern Appalachians. And not a single word of it will be an illusion.

[Sam Wardle lives in Asheville.]

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