Who Fly-Fishes? C.J. Box
Who Fly-Fishes? C.J. Box
- By: Stephen Camelio
They say you should write what you know, and this advice has paid off handsomely for author C.J. Box. His best-selling novels, most of which feature crime-solving game warden Joe Pickett (who, like Box, is a Wyoming native, outdoorsman and dedicated family man), have sold millions of copies and won Box countless awards, including an Edgar Award in 2009, from the Mystery Writers of America, for Best Novel. Box and Pickett (who is once again the main character of Box’s newest work, Force of Nature, released this past March), share one other very important characteristic—both are avid fly fishermen. And while Pickett’s angling stories are fictitious, Box, in one of the few spare moments when he wasn’t either fishing or writing, agreed to share the truth behind his own fish tales.
Since you’re from Wyoming, I assume you grew up fishing?
Yeah, I have fished all my life. My parents had a cabin in the Bighorns and I remember brookie fishing when I was tiny. I wasn’t fly-fishing at that point, but using grasshoppers. I’d spend an hour collecting them and then go fishing with them.
When did you transition to fly-fishing?
Right after college I moved to Saratoga, Wyoming to work for a newspaper. Part of the economy of the area was driftboat runs down the North Platte, and I was asked to help fill in for some of the guides, manning the oars with some fly fishermen. That was the first time I saw the difference and started to make the transition. That would have been 26 years ago.
So you were a river guide?
I was never a professional guide; I just started doing it on my own with friends. That river is completely wild and unpredictable, so it’s pretty tricky. If you are on the oars, you don’t fish. I love the ride even if the fishing isn’t so great.
What type of boats were you running?
At that point they were using all flat-bottom johnboats. They’ve since switched over to McKenzie-style drift boats with low bows because of the wind. Now I’ve got a Hyde drift boat, and then a raft for the Encampment River because it’s a little shallower.
Was it easy to pick up fly-casting given your outdoor experience?
I almost think it was harder because I had grown up spinning, and there is a certain technique to that. It took me a long time to adjust to the idea of throwing line instead of throwing a lure. I remember finally telling myself I had to start making trips without that spinning rod under the seat just in case.
Was there a moment when it all came together?
Yeah, it was the first time I caught a big fish on a dry fly on the North Platte. It was an Elkhair Caddis on a drift, and I saw this 19-inch rainbow come out from under the bank, saw the mouth open and hit the fly. That is something you can’t experience spin-fishing. That was it. I may catch fewer fish but it’s all for a greater experience.
Do you have a favorite fish story you tell?
I was actually up in Yellowstone on Slough Creek, the Yankee Stadium of fly-fishing, and I saw three big fish in a nice run. I was able to figure out how to float down a black ant and catch all three of them but not spook the others. Because I was concentrating so hard it seemed to me that it took all of about a half-hour, but in retrospect it took about two hours.
Are ranch owners in your area starting to limit access?
Where I fish the most, on the upper North Platte and on the Encampment in Wyoming, it is just as accessible, or more than it ever was. Even though a lot of the big ranches have been bought by John Malone, one of the richest guys in the world, his philosophy is not to shut off access. Obviously, in Wyoming you can float any river, but you can’t get out. I talk about river access and landowner relations in my book In Plain Sight. There used to be a ranch woman who, though it was illegal, strung a wire across the river neck high to stop drifters and make them pull over and pay her five bucks each to put the wire down.
Has writing about a game warden made you more aware of fishing rules and regulations?
I notice the ethics of fishing, in particular meat fishing, is taking the longest time in places like Wyoming. But overall it is encouraging that the trend for most fishermen, even though they may keep a fish or two, is not to go out anymore to catch their limit. In my lifetime I’ve seen that change, which I think is all for the better.
You are into catch-and-release?
It depends completely where I caught the fish. If it is a lake on a ranch and they planted fish in it—and I even have my own fish pond now—I’ll keep a fish from time to time. But if it is on a wild river or in a remote wilderness area I probably won’t. Only time I’ll keep them is if I know that they are going to die. That’s one of those ethical things that sometimes fishermen need to be more cognizant of—the fact that they have killed a fish and not just put it back for the sake of it. That’s the price you pay.
Are you just a freshwater, dryfly guy?
No, I am getting more and more into nymphs and streamers, and a friend of mine, writer Brian Wiprud, has gotten me into almost old-fashion wet flies. It’s amazing how well those will work at times. I’ll try whatever works and I have learned to keep switching it up.
Do you get to fish outside of Wyoming?
A couple other writers and I do an annual trip. We take turns organizing it. Last year, for the first time, I went to Baja, Mexico to the Sea of Cortez and caught tuna and mahi mahi—huge fish—on huge fly rods. They were like super trout. That was a lot of fun.
Where else have you guys gone?
A lodge in eastern Pennsylvania, and we’ve gone up to the Sierras several times. This summer we are going to do a week on the Bighorn, which I have not fished. I’ve fished all over Montana but I have not fished the Bighorn.
Is the North Platte your favorite?
Yeah, when that river is on it is like nothing else I’ve ever seen. There are a lot of rocks, lots of oxidation in the water so it’s perfect fish habitat, plus all the fish are wild. If you hit it on a great day it is just unbelievable. The Encampment is the same way.
How does fishing fit into your life?
I fish more every year. I try to schedule my life and writing around the ability to get out. We bought a cabin a couple years ago on the Encampment River, and I can launch a boat from the front lawn. For me that was always my dream. I’ll go over there in the summer and fall and work half the day and fish the other half.
How do fly-fishing and writing go together?
A lot of times I will be able to work out a plot point by fishing really intensely and not thinking about the problem, and suddenly I’ll figure out how to get from A to B. That happens a lot.
Is your family into fishing?
I have all girls, and my two oldest daughters are passionate about fishing so I always have fishing buddies. One of them ties flies and they would just as well go fishing than do just about anything. My youngest is 19. And she fishes but she is not passionate about it. She always catches fish too, which drives everybody else crazy.
Did you teach them?
It was all my evil plan. By two or three years old, I’d take them fishing. First time we went up to some beaver ponds around Cheyenne and there were some boys fishing with worms and the girls were fishing with dry flies, and they were out-fishing the boys by five to one, and it made all the difference in the world.
Do you have a favorite fly?
I’ve been using a streamer on the North Platte the last couple of years called an Autumn Splendor, or a Cowboy Joe. They are yellow and brown, kind of long with a weighted beadhead on them, and those are absolute killer at the right time of year.
Stephen Camelio lives on Wyoming’s northwest border with Montana, so he doesn’t have to travel far for great fishing. For more of his writing, visit www.stephencamelio.com