Clint Crumb's fly box.

Open Water


First published in Volume 14, Issue 3 of The Flyfish Journal

I check the clock, do the math and dial. Pete answers on the first ring, speakerphone.

“Old Man.” He calls me Old Man because I was the first of our friends to get gray hair.

“Pete. What are you doing?”

“Rolling cigarettes. Going fishing. Can’t talk long.”

Living on the opposite coast from fishing friends makes it hard to stay in touch. A three-hour time difference doesn’t seem like much, but sometimes it’s just enough.

Pete’s fishing program is unlike most. He’s a shore-based, wetsuit-wearing, Cape Cod striped bass fisherman, and he selectively fishes certain tides, exclusively under the cover of night. I’m more accustomed to the early-to-bed, early-to-rise type of fishing, so the few times I joined him threw off my biological clock for days afterward. 

Despite our time differences—geographically and fundamentally—we’re still old fishing buddies, so we talk when we can and pick up where we left off. My well-timed call from the West Coast reaches him on the East Coast during pre-fishing preparations, which is always a fun time to chat.

Hand of local guide, Dom Lentini, holding fly. Photo: Joe Klementovich

above By late June in New Hampshire, water temps are just about perfect and the hatches go off in full force. Some days the right ticket is a juicy olive spotlight caddis emerger, but the trout seem to like it even more when tied on by the worn, tanned hands of local guide Dom Lentini. Photo: Joe Klementovich

“I thought you might be,” I say. “How many do you need?”

“‘How many do I need?’”

“Yeah, how many cigarettes do you need to go fishing?”

“Oh, too many.”

I consider this for a moment. Pete and I get into philosophical debates over angling minutia and I have to choose my next words carefully. I’m usually good for a few rounds of back-and-forth, but this is a proposition I struggle with.

Sensing my lack of understanding, he adds, “I don’t know how long I’ll fish, and I don’t want to waste time rolling them when I’m out there, so it’s best to have too many.”

“Makes sense to me. How’s the fishing?”

“I’m about to find out. I’ll call you tomorrow and let you know. See ya, Old Man.”

He hangs up and I think about what he said. “Too many” is not a number that jibes with my analytical disposition, but after some thought I realize that I do indeed employ a similar approach with an angling accessory of my own: flies. I think about my numerous boxes with rows upon rows full of flies. I quickly dismiss the notion that there’s a countless quantity and calculate an estimate of how many I have. Using round numbers for easy math gives me a fly box with two sides of 10 rows at 20 flies per row; looking into my pack, I count four boxes. So there’s 1,600 flies, and that’s just what’s on me. That doesn’t include the half-dozen other boxes in my boat bag, plus the other boat bags at home. It’s staggering and, frankly, embarrassing.

The reasoning behind Pete’s reserve of smokes and my stockpiles of flies are analogous but nuanced. While his case requires an unspecified but very large supply of a singular ingredient, mine relies on precise quantities of a high number of specific variations. Neither approach is better than the other, yet both are equally important to the mission. In either case, the worst possible scenario is to run out.

This has happened to me. I was driving from Wyoming to Washington state and pit-stopped to fish a small river in Idaho. It was late summer and though I was on the water early, it was already bright and getting hot. Seeing a few caddis and a mayfly or two, I started by trying a half-dozen relevant imitations. No luck. I then decided to tie on my favorite hopper—a tan Schroeder’s Parachute. At the next piece of good-looking water, I saw a refusal and realized there was a player. I downsized with a cinnamon Turck’s Power Ant. The fish took it on the next cast.

Continuing upstream, I caught a couple more, then noticed the fly was starting to unravel. I checked my boxes for another but couldn’t find one. I decided to try another ant pattern, about the same size, but black and without the rubber legs. I tied it on and resumed fishing. Nothing happened.

above Rolling up some smokables bankside after a long day during a rare Dolores River, CO, boating season. Photo: Copi Vojta

Finally, after fishing it in a pool that looked too good, I tied the chewed-up Power Ant back on and immediately rose a fish. I kept fishing the fly—and catching fish—until there was only a fragment of it left; it wasn’t floating, didn’t look like an ant, and the fish finally weren’t interested anymore. But I knew they were still feeding. I tried another ant, then a beetle, then the smallest hopper I could find. None worked. I went back to what I’d started with—caddis, mayflies—same as before. Convinced that nothing else would work, I took a last, half-hearted look for another cinnamon Power Ant. Then I called it a day.

No amount of preparation is enough to satisfy every possibility. We try our best, compiling thousands of flies and rolling dozens of cigarettes, attempting to control the outcome in our favor. Eventually we run out. These moments leave us frustrated and temporarily unfulfilled, but ultimately we benefit, for that which we desire is fleeting and finite. There’s not much excitement in always having the right fly and plenty of it; the cigarette would not satisfy if it never went out. Wish as we may for never-ending time on the water, our angling days are numbered, and that is why we value them so dearly.

I asked Pete recently if he had ever run out of cigarettes while fishing.

“I never ran out,” he said. “But one time I forgot them entirely.”

It was after midnight and he’d kayaked a couple miles through the remnants of a tropical storm to an island from which he could access a deep channel with heavy current. After realizing that he’d left his tobacco behind, he turned around, kayaked back to his truck, grabbed the pouch and paddled back to the island again.

“I immediately rolled what was sure to be the best cigarette ever,” he said. “But after all that, I forgot the damn lighter.”

I’m happy to report that Pete swapped smoking for jogging and it’s been years since he last rolled “too many.” He still stays up late, but now it is due to his enrollment in a graduate program. As for me, I’ve been giving flies away and, as a move toward simplicity and minimalism, I bought one of those Day’s Worth fly boxes. 

Well, it was the Super Day’s Worth box.  


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