December 22, 2022
The article originally appeared in the March 2005 issue of Fly Fisherman.
Tonight the caddis fly so thick they fill the spaces between the early stars. The trout are taking pupae with such ferocity and regularity you'd have to douse the run with gasoline and strike a match to stop their rising. You've built your leader, tippeted-down, pulled the perfect imitation from your hat brim, dressed the bug, lashed it on. And you've spotted the biggest fish in the run. Not the respectable 17-inch cutthroat dimpling in the foam, or the solid rainbow crushing emergers on the seam, but the brown whose kype-jaw grazes the surface a full three beats before his tail tip does. And you've timed his rise (every eight seconds). You have even sent a twig down the tricky currents to better learn his back-eddy lie.
Now you peel line quietly from the reel, make two quick false-casts, drop your rod tip to execute the perfect pile cast-and then it happens.
Bird nest, wind-knot, mare's-tail, snarl. White-out, split-end, snag. Piscatory-penalty, monofilament-mayhem, operator error. Say them one at a time, or all at once in a chant. Invent your own profanity. Call tangles what you want. I call them reverse miracles, because even after careful scientific examination, you can never tell just how they've happened.
"Oops," I might say to a novice client wondering what caused his present inline-accident, "You rushed your back cast." Or, if I'm feeling generous: "A tail wind kicked up just as you came forward." Or, more frankly: "You broke your wrist." "Too tight of a loop." "Quit being fancy, just punch it out there." Or, finally, surrendering, "You know what they say about the wind ... it blows."
In my six years of guiding, I've seen almost every existing species of tangle, and common as a magpie in Montana is the tangle between bow angler and stern angler. Another daily sighting is the tangle between angler and his hat, not to be mistaken with the tangle between angler and my hat. Then there's the rare, but by no means endangered, tangle between angler and the anchor rope, and so on.
Recently, I asked a dozen other fishing guides to estimate the amount of time they spend each day re-rigging leaders. According to my admittedly unscientific poll, the average professional guide spends nearly an hour a day "crocheting," as one friend called it.
Sometimes, early in the trip, a client will ask me: "What's the most important secret you can show me today?" I generally wait for some form of backcast-caused catastrophe to occur–which inevitably does and which the client attempts to pick apart–before I answer. Then, taking the cluster in my hands, I say, "You want to see a secret?" and clip off the mess with my teeth. Before anyone can quip, "My dentist says you shouldn't do that," I've got one blood knot tied, a second in the works, and the perfect fly in mind.
Needless to say, I'm picking on my paying customers, who aren't the only anglers spending time in pisciculture purgatory. Half of the reason I don't oblige clients who ask me to take a cast or two is that I'd hate to, after spewing out instructions all day, fumble into a "canyou-fix-this" on my first or second cast. Over the years I've seen anglers of all levels–famous ones with TV shows or seven books, "shadow-casting doubles," fellow guides, you name it–sit down on a log and curse into their occupied hands.
But strange as this may sound, tangles are not only caused by technical failures. Have you ever noticed, after mentioning to a partner, or merely thinking to yourself, Wow, I haven't tangled up all day, how quickly a mishap can ensue? Some days, luck can shift with cosmic quickness. Once, for example, a repeat client, known around the lodge for his wicked tailing loop, was fishing surprisingly well during a Missouri River Baetis hatch. It was late in the season and sunny and, since we were targeting spooky shallowwater fish, we had built a 13-foot leader to 6X. Aiming into a steady, upstream breeze, Phil's casts were, as they had to be, near perfect. They had just enough patience, just enough punch, and were right on line.
Finally, after hooking several strong rainbows and a brown on consecutive casts, he said: "You know, I'm fishing pretty–." He stopped his sentence, but it was too late. The first of innumerable fluorocarbon dive-bombers was buzzing by my head. "Now, I would call that a karmic transfer," Phil said with a laugh.
As a guide who nearly always repairs his clients' handiwork, I've learned to tolerate tangles, though some are simply less tolerable than others. Once, while guiding on the Beaverhead River where the standard rig includes a kitelike poly-yarn indicator, two nymphs, and split-shot, and untangling entails clipping the whole snarl and rigging again, I was led to establish the Five Second Rule.
"Michael," I said to my experienced client, "I am now enforcing the Five Second Rule. If, after receiving a brand new rig-shot, tippet, nymph, tippet, nymph–you can't find it in your vacationing-self to relax your cast, open up your loop, and keep your potentially effective rig in a line and not a nest for a mere five seconds–the short amount of time, I might add, it takes, as your wife is proving, to hook a fish in this run–you will have to untangle your flies and re-rig on your own, while Susan and I catch fish."
We laughed hard, all three of us. But it didn't help. He continued to snag his flies on the rod tip, on the indicator, to wrap them around the split-shot. Although he didn't, he seemed capable of snagging a fly on itself . . . 27, 28, 29 tangles. In my head, I began drafting a letter to the Guinness Records Committee: Number of Fishing Related Tangles Encountered in a Day, 29; Location, Beaverhead River; Angler, Michael Ruebens; Witness, Chris Dombrowski.
My eyes and fingers needed a break. I waded to shore, leaned back in the grass, and, watching a fleet of fist-like clouds loosen into a flock of dovelike clouds, thought of how Jim Harrison said, "The river is as far as I can get from the world of numbers." And like that, in a kind of Zenlike satori or epiphany, it came to me: There is no 28 or 29; there is just a tangle. I can get a tangle out. I reached for Michael's knotty rig, the one he had been picking at for minutes, and said, with unforced empathy, "Here, let me get that for you."
Just then, Susan, who'd fished all day without foible, made a forward cast that whistled like a meadowlark drying off after rain. She smiled, held the tangle up like a fish for us to admire, and said, "Looks like I caught the sky."
Chris Dombrowski is a writer and guide. He lives in Missoula, Montana.