The Better Part (Or Half) of Valor

The Better Part (Or Half) of Valor

The author stows his ego and asks someone else to teach his wife to fly-fish.

  • By: Will Rice
  • Photography by: Will Rice
Debora Rice with Nanci Morris, hoisting an Alaska char.

Nanci Morris Lyons is one of the best guides in southwest Alaska, so my wife Debra just grinned and nodded when Nanci told her, “No husband should ever try to teach his wife how to drive a car, pilot a plane or use a fly rod. Come on out to Bristol Bay and I’ll show you how to cast a fly without developing all of Rice’s bad habits.”

It was early December, and we had bumped into Nanci and her husband, Heath, at the baggage carousel in the Seattle airport, all of us traveling for one last shot of sunshine before winter hit in earnest. Naturally, the subject of conversation was fishing, and Debra, new to the sport, was excited to find another woman with the same passion that she was developing. Nanci’s advice was something that I should have heard six months earlier (not that I would have paid any attention to it).

The invitation would seem to be a no-brainer. I have known Nanci for years, and despite my bad casting habits, she has put me on some of the biggest trout I have ever caught. Debra and I live in Anchorage, Alaska and we were already planning to be in King Salmon in June. We could easily spend a day flying out to some spectacular river with Nanci. Win, win you would think. My ego knew better . . . . A little back story may be in order here.

Mid-June may not be the best time to go to Bristol Bay for trout, but Bristol Bay is the best place to go for trout in mid-June. For almost 30 years, my buddies and I have traveled there to kick off the season with a week of camping and hard fishing.

Long before we met, Debra had spent a few years in rural Alaska. To her, fishing pretty much meant using her open skiff and a drift net to lay in a winter’s supply of salmon. When we started dating, I told her that I didn’t chase women, had learned my limits on drink, and had given up illicit drugs, but I did fly-fish. At one point, in a fit of I’m-off-to-go-fishing-with-the-boys pique, she suggested that she might have been better off with a womanizing alcoholic junkie.

However, after listening to my friends and me endlessly rehash our most recent Bristol Bay trip, she announced that she wanted to learn to fly-fish, and more to the point, next year, she wanted to join us on our annual expedition.

For a newlywed, this was a serious quandary. It wasn’t that I didn’t want her along. We always have a great time together on our regular mountain bike and cross-country ski trips. And I knew that my buddies would be happy to have her in camp. Not only does she laugh at their jokes, but she always pulls out freshly baked brownies. The problem was that this was a serious fishing trip and I didn’t want to spend the best week of the year teaching her how to tie a clinch knot.

As a dutiful husband, though—never thinking of myself—I came up with a compromise solution. More fishing. It was still early August and the best trout fishing of the year was just starting. The sockeyes were beginning to spawn, and the trout were gorging themselves before winter arrived.

My schedule lets me fish on the days I choose, and I rarely battle the weekend crowds. Always willing to sacrifice, though, I suggested that instead of Debra’s favorite weekend activity of picking berries, we spend the time on a trout stream. (Since my role would be guide and mentor, I didn’t feel the need to cut back on my other fishing days.) It took a bit of negotiation, including a mention of the prime blueberry patches along the stream bank, but she agreed that this would be a good way to learn to fish.

I found a nice medium-action six-weight for her, but this is where I wish I had heard Nanci’s admonition about husbands teaching their wives to fly-fish. Fishing behind salmon does not require long casts, but the combination of strike indicator, split-shot, fly and brush-lined banks is a recipe for tangled lines and discussions held through clenched teeth. Finally, Debra suggested that instead of telling her what to do, maybe I should just fish and she would learn from watching me. I was, as you can imagine, emotionally crushed by this decision, but I soldiered on and managed to pick up a few good fish.

By the second weekend, she was able to keep her fly in the water most of the time and she seemed to have a fish on pretty regularly. When I mismanaged the netting of a particularly nice rainbow, she decided that she could probably net them herself, thank you. On that Sunday she called me over just in time to watch her release a fat 24-inch hen. Contrary to her recollection, there was not a trace of bitterness in my voice when I mentioned that it had taken me 20 years to catch a fish that big on a fly rod. And that slug of Irish whisky from my pocket flask was simply a celebratory toast to her success. The next weekend we went berry picking.

It gets worse.

When we ran into Nanci in the Seattle airport, I pretty much knew what was coming. As summer approached Debra started to grow nervous about showing badly in front of Nanci. In late May she began taking her fly rod to work so she could visit a nearby park during lunch hour and cast on the lawn. She seemed surprisingly disciplined about practicing every day. But as she put it, carrying a Sage rod case meant that every guy in the elevator tried to strike up a conversation, and men could not pass her in the park without offering advice on her casting stroke. “I wish I had known about fly rods when I was single,” she said. “These things do for girls what puppies do for guys.”

By June, she was feeling better about her casting, but our early summer weather was as bitter as a winter steelhead trip. We were hoping it would break by the time we flew out to Bristol Bay, but we walked off the King Salmon flight into a dark spitting rain.

We spent the night at a B&B run by an attractive woman—a talented artist, who coincidentally happened to be a guide, a certified casting instructor and, like Nanci, licensed to fly airplanes and captain 20-ton ocean-going vessels. This is not a town for fragile male egos.

It was only fisherman’s optimism that made us think the weather had improved when Nanci showed up the next morning. The plan was to fly out to a small stream with Nanci, spend the day fishing, and then have the plane drop us off at our campsite. The pilot took a shot at getting us out, but, in what has to be the shortest flight since the Wright brothers, he took a look at the cloud line, banked around and landed right where we started. Plan B. The trip with Nanci was put off until her next free day, and we headed out to the campsite when the ceiling lifted that afternoon.

Early season fishing can be varied as the weather, and dependent upon it. Typically, the sockeye eggs are hatching, and the heart of June fishing is with fry patterns. This year, though, the sloughs and backwaters (which usually teem with fry) were empty, and the few we saw were so tiny it was obvious that they had just wriggled out of the gravel.

That lack of fry was mirrored in the lack of trout. Runs in which we would typically see a dozen big ’bows held only a fish or two. And the water was far colder than it should have been this late in the summer. Naturally, we (that being the guys) considered this a perfect excuse for another drink and a discussion of the situation. But let me make it clear—we were not whining.

Faced with reality, we bundled up, wore our warmest pile pants and tied on big, beadhead nymphs. Debra found the rig—yarn indicator, split-shot and a heavy nymph—frustrating. We quit sympathizing with her, though, when she hooked a fish so hot that it backlashed her reel into a bird’s nest that took 15 minutes to untangle.

That Monday, Nanci showed up and the three of us headed out to American Creek. Lower American is a maze of braids and sweepers, perfect habitat for big trout. At its best it’s a stream that provides great dryfly fishing, lots of char and some monster rainbows. This year though, it was running high and a little off-color, and we knew the fishing would be tougher than usual.

Nanci rigged Debra with the guide’s favorite fly for inexperienced clients—an articulated leech about four inches long and weighing more than some bass lures. If you can cast an Alaskan leech, you can pretty much throw anything. They might be ugly, but boy can they catch fish. Within half an hour, with both women leaning into a fast, thigh-deep current, Debra had a chunky 21-inch char in the net and a big beam on her face. The next run produced more char and a two-foot long ’bow that spit the fly out in mid-jump.

I was beginning to see why it is better to have a professional, and better yet a female professional, teach your wife to cast. For instance, if I had said, as Nanci did, “Now you’re casting like a girl. Don’t be afraid to load that rod,” I might have ended up strangled with my own fly line. But these two were having more fun than a pair of cheerleaders at the make-up counter.

By the end of the day, the casting instruction and guide tips began to show. On our flight back to camp, it was a bit humiliating when Nanci, filling out the mandatory Alaska Department of Fish and Game catch report, asked each of us how many fish we had landed. This is why I hate statistics.

The saving grace was an improvement in the weather. By the next afternoon the sun peeked through and the fish became more active. We were all finding trout and the warming water meant that they were spending a good portion of the fight in the air.

There were bears wandering the river and periodically we would have to pull out of the water and wait as they moved slowly through, grazing on the bank-side grasses. The next morning the ursine parade continued. A sow with two first-year cubs wandered down the beach in front of camp. She was obviously habituated to fishermen, and knew that the big boars, the only real threat to her cubs, didn’t come around camp. She flopped down on the beach for a nap, and the two cubs wrestled and chased each other through the shallow water like a couple of puppies. We were already wadered-up and on our way to the river, but they instantly transformed us into a bunch of paparazzi in rubber pants.

Warmer weather meant that the trout would occasionally be looking up and we switched to big, ugly dry flies during the afternoon. It wasn’t fast fishing, but it doesn’t take many 20-inch trout to make a good hour or so of dryfly fishing. More important, clouds of fry were starting to show up in the shallows and backchannels and we were seeing trout in runs that had been barren three days earlier. Things were getting promising.

By the next day, it was beginning to look like Alaskan fishing again. The big dries were working, and Debra let out a whoop when a 22-inch rainbow came all the way up from the bottom and ate her Bugmeister.

The weather continued to hold, and the following afternoon a friend, Rich Chiappone, took a 28-inch ’bow on an Elk-Hair Caddis. He said the head came out of the water and then the body just kept coming. But it wasn’t the dry flies that got our attention. We were seeing slashing fish working every run, a sure sign that the fry were moving and the fish were turned on to the major food source of the month. We switched to Thunder Creeks and we all had our rods bent for the rest of the day.

As usual, we had to leave just as the weather and the fishing were getting hot. On the last morning, Debra said that she wanted to head back to a long sweeping bend we call Lynx Hole. It is a run with a frustratingly large number of big fish lying in plain sight. Easy to see, but tough to catch.

From the head of the run, I could see Debra working a fish that she had spotted. The big, collapsing loops she threw earlier in the week had tightened up nicely and I realized, with a sense of shock, that she was giving a little line-hand jerk as she cast. Where in hell did she learn to double-haul?

The line straightened out and she gave it a little flip mend, letting the Thunder Creek drift down in the film, facing upstream like a real fry. I saw a slashing hit and she tightened up on what appeared to be a very nice fish. No whoops this time. Not even a glance upstream to see if I was watching. The fish took off on a long run and I reeled in and started wading toward shore.

By the time I got to the bank, Debra had turned the fish and was putting some heat on it, rod tip low and pulling the fish off balance, preventing it from resting. It was obvious from the power of the runs that she had hooked a big fish, but this one wasn’t jumping, just slugging it out. Finally, the trout tired enough to come under control. I moved in with a net that was inadequate for the size of the fish, but Debra wisely waved me off. She waited until the fish’s head turned toward her, and then slid it smoothly into shallow water. I stepped in and grabbed it. There was a beam on her face when I put a tape on the fish and came up at 26 inches—two inches better than my best fish of the week.

Don’t get the idea that I am envious of all this success. I am actually a big fan of having a wife who likes to fish. On the flight back to Anchorage, sipping a cold beer, Debra said, “Next summer, why don’t we go for 10 days instead of just a week?”

Will Rice is a freelance writer/photographer and frequent contributor to FR&R. He lives in Anchorage, AK.  You can see more of his photos at willricephoto.zenfolio.com